One of the side effects of country music on the radio being so terrible is that you know there’s an entire generation of naturally gifted artists out there that the world may never hear. In earlier eras, there was a national effort to find and develop the best voices and purest songwriters, and get that talent to Nashville or Bakersfield for the betterment of the genre. The country music world couldn’t have lived with itself if it knew it let someone like George Strait, or Keith Whitley slip through its hands. Now you’re more likely to stumble upon a naturally gifted artist in a local honky tonk as you are hear one piped through your car stereo.
There are a lot of establishments that label themselves “honky tonks” on Lower Broadway in Nashville these days, but those who know the real story of the area understand it wasn’t always two rows of retrofitted Vegas-style fern bars branded with the names of bad country acts and teeming with tourists as bridal showers on pedal bars circle the blocks outside. It was dirt poor neo-traditionalists and throwback punks who rescued the old brick structures in the 90’s from adult bookstores and condemn notices in the shadow of the shuttered Ryman Auditorium. They came to the area like pilgrims, chasing the ghost of Hank Williams, and holding court at places like Robert’s Western World when nobody else cared. That is where the spark of life re-emerged in the area.
Though Robert’s Western World receives most of the national attention as the one last true honky tonk on Lower Broadway, Layla’s next door deserves equal billing for being a bulwark for the revitalization of the area. This is where Hank Williams III and Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers swung from the rafters early in their careers, and it’s also the stage that country blues singer, songwriter, and player Tom Buller has been plying his craft for the last 10 years.
Tom Buller opens his mouth, and you’re immediately transported back to the Golden Era of country music, whichever era you choose the ‘Golden’ one to be. Where has true country music gone, you ask? It’s gone right down the gullet of Tom Buller, and comes back out in the form of one of the purest country voices you’ll hear, and in songs that are deep, classic country expressions, interpreted through Tom’s original perspective. His voice is the reason country legend Lorrie Morgan says, “Tom Buller is the best male country singer out there today.”
His first true release, When A Country Boy Gets The Blues holds up the promise of the title, revitalizing the blues influences in traditional country first adopted by Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams. Some will tell you that when the blues was washed away from modern country, that’s when it all went so bad. Listening to this record, it’s hard not to confirm that hypothesis. This is not your average throwback country record performed by a young and hip revivalist. You hear the ghosts of George Jones and Gary Stewart in Tom Buller’s voice, and the blues embedded in the songs makes his sound unique to the modern ear.
When A Country Boy Gets The Blues is still solidly country though, with fiddle and steel guitar where it’s called for, and songs and a voice undeniably native to country music. Yet if there was any concern with the record, it would be that on some of the songs, the blazing blues guitar is a little too thick. Impressive as it is (and it is), perhaps it’s just a bit too much when you expect to hear more twang to match the songs and Tom’s voice.
Originally from Omaha, Nebraska where he played in his family’s bluegrass band, music is the only profession Tom Buller has ever known. He’s played in the band of blues legend Guitar Shorty, and toured with Gary P. Nunn. Buller’s got a small but dedicated following in Texas too, and tours there often. He’s sat in with The Time Jumpers, and considers Vince Gill his hero. But Lower Broadway is Buller’s primary haunt, where he and others hold back the flood of mediocrity on sacred country music ground.
If there was any justice in country music, it would be Tom Buller’s name emblazoned on a 3-story bar & grill on Lower Broadway, and many of today’s mainstream country major stars playing for tips in the dingy honky tonks, still cutting their teeth. In the meantime though, those who really know the ways of true country music can spread the knowledge of the real stuff word of mouth, and one name that deserves to be spread far and wide is Tom Buller.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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