Let’s level with ourselves folks. Right now the whole Hellbound Glory/ Leroy Virgil thing is kind of a mess. You don’t need a timeline to keep up with Leroy Virgil’s career anymore, you need a map and a glossary. The last time we heard from him, Hellbound Glory was dead, killed off, and Leroy was flying solo under his given name “Leon Virgil Bowers.” He went on an extended tour opening for Blackberry Smoke as a one man band, and this looked to be the flag he would be marching under until kingdom come. Then Leroy pronounced Hellbound Glory was back (and that he was Leroy Virgil again). . . but he’d be releasing a new record under the name The Excavators, for a subspecies of Hellbound Glory that existed for a while with Leroy sitting on a bass drum playing it backwards, and a guy named Rico playing lap steel. Oh, but he’s also releasing a three-song set from Hellbound Glory called The Black Mass on the same day.
Thoroughly confused? Well especially if you’ve never heard of Leroy Virgil or Hellbound Glory, go back and dig up their first two records Scumbag Country and Old Highs and New Lows, and later Damaged Goods, and soon you’ll figure out why it’s worth it to many fans to fight through all the name changes and band turnover to try and hear more of the magic captured on those early records. No matter what happens or what you call it, Hellbound Glory and Leon Virgil’s legacy will be cemented into country music history as crucial and groundbreaking in the underground sector, even though the commercial and industry success that has recently spring boarded other once obscure songwriters like Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, and Jason Isbell to the top has thus far alluded the Reno, NV-based Virgil.
But we all know “success” is not always synonymous with the names of those who deserve it the most, and no matter how sloppy the Hellbound Glory experience has been ever since Kid Rock booked the band as the opener on an arena tour, Leroy Virgil still remains one of the greatest songwriters in country music living today. These couple of projects released on Black Friday speak to that, if you’re willing to approach them with some adventurousness and an open mind.
Leroy Virgil has the tragic grandeur that many songwriters only wish they could capture, and some attempt to emulate, but few have the authenticity to truly live down. Virgil has no need to cut an ear off for inspiration. Whatever troubled demons that get stirred up when the most brilliant wordsmiths go searching their innermost depths for inspiration, they are alive and well in the Hellbound Glory frontman. Nonetheless, as a father and someone who tries to make his way in this world as a songwriter and performer, Leroy has to try and keep things at least somewhat managed and rolling down the road to survive.
The first of the two Black Friday releases, annotated in long form as The Black Mass (the Ballad of Bohemian Grove), is a set of three songs taken from studio sessions conducted in rust belt Detroit a couple of years ago that die hard Hellbound fans were hoping would have resulted in a new album by now. Similar to sessions even years before produced by Shooter Jennings, the entirety of the recordings are still sitting on the shelf, even though Leroy has hinted they might come to light someday. Leroy told Saving Country Music recently, “I’m just picky about what I put out.” These Black Friday releases should be taken as addendums to Leroy’s careers, not full-length, featured releases.
The Back Mass captures Leroy and Hellbound Glory at a time when he had recently toured with the Supersuckers, was re-connecting with his Aberdeen, Washington roots (Leroy’s true hometown), and listening to a lot of Cobain. The result is not necessarily the Gothic experience the title and cover may seem to hint at, but it is a hard rock version of Hellbound for sure. All three songs will be familiar to many fans who’ve seen Leroy or Hellbound live over the last few years. The arrangements are tight, the electric guitar is heavy, and the 3-song set will encapsulate a little era in Hellbound that had the band stretching its sonic palette into the rock realm like never before. “Sun Valley Blues #2 (Showin’ Off)” is especially evil, with the genius line “I like to party with Republicans,” and a scream by Leroy that is other-worldly.
The Excavators might be best described as something in the exact opposite direction of The Black Mass. Super stripped down with just Leroy, his acoustic guitar, a bass drum, and Rico on lap steel, these are Leroy songs in their most primitive state. His voice is rough in spots, and downright shot in others, including at the very start of the first song. The recordings weren’t meant to be of release quality. Again, some of these songs have been heard before, either live, on small little single or video releases Leroy has done over the years, or in the case of “Repo Man” and “Black Mass,” they are alternate versions of songs found on The Black Mass.
However there are some pretty rare morsels on The Excavators that make acquiring the album worth the trouble for Leroy fans. “World Coming To An End,” though an older song and including some dated references, still comes across as incredibly topical due to the current political season and recent world events. “Another Dead Friend” is a song that shows off why Leroy’s perspective is singular in the country songwriting space in how he can encapsulate things with such aching realism that it elevates it into poetry. And “If The Good Lord’s A Good Ol’ Boy” evokes the sort of everyman hero of Hank Jr.’s high flying days that Leroy also includes in his widely cast songwriting array.
These records are probably not the best place to start for fresh blood to the Hellbound Glory experience, but for folks following Leroy for years, they’re must haves to keep up with this man’s songwriting output.
1 1/2 of Two Guns Up
(for both The Black Mass & The Excavators)
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