There's a video going around lately, created by Nashville songwriter Greg Todd, in which six current hit county music songs are all played simultaneously. If you watch the video, what you quickly realize is how shockingly and painfully similar each of the songs are.
One could easily argue the case that the majority of current popular music is equally formulaic, regardless of genre, and that given most of the songs you might find in today's "Top 40," it is the producer, not the artist, who is the driving force behind the industry. Look at the work of Max Martin or Calvin Harris and you'll see title after title performed by various, insipid Johnny Bravos who worked the assembly line, played the game and achieved their fifteen minutes.
Knowing this makes me want to scream "Thank goodness!" that there are still true musical craftspeople out there like Mark Utley.
I became acquainted with Mark and his band Magnolia Mountain back in October, 2013 when I wrote a review of their album Beloved. Even then, my first impression was of an individual with a vision who made no excuses and accepted no compromises.
Bulletville (both the band and the 11-track album) shows that that impression still rings true with such gripping songs as "Wish You Were Her" and the bluesy "Four in the Morning." The music is as bone-deep country as you can get without calling yourself Willie or Waylon, and the lyrics are brash, abrasive and rife with old-school heart-on-your-sleeve pathos.
In 2012, Bulletville evolved as an outgrowth of Magnolia Mountain and includes several of the same musicians -- Renee Frye on vocals, Jeff Vanover on guitar and Todd Drake on drums -- joined by the likes of Ken Kimbrell on bass as well as some all-star talent in the persons of Ricky Nye on piano and John Lang on pedal steel. Vocalist Melissa English makes a guest appearance on the album as does the amazing Paul Patterson [Faux Frenchmen].
Just like in the creation of Beloved, Utley and his band of gypsies partnered with John Curley at Ultrasuede Studio to record and produce the album. Like he so often does, Curley exhibits a masterful skill in production by knowing precisely what to keep in and what to edit out. The end result is a graceful harmony between polish and raw honesty.
With the opening bass line of "Good Timin' Girl," Bulletville brings you immediately back to the heyday of WSM and The Grand Ole Opry, when country was king and the radio was the most important gizmo in the house. Lang's pedal steel playing is immaculate and blends with Frye's vocals to put the the icing on the cake that is Nye's piano and Utley's guitar.
"Firecracker" is precisely the kind of boogie-woogie piano-driven composition that I think of when I think of Ricky Nye, so this track is really his chance to shine. However, this song is all about the strength of a woman and Renee Frye refuses to take the back seat to Nye - or to anyone. This ensuing battle for the spotlight only serves makes this song better more powerful.
In "Honey I'm Home," Utley weaves a tale of barroom brotherhood with far more style and grace than you might get from the likes of Toby Keith. It is not a heavy-handed, pandering beer-commercial like "I Love This Bar," but it is, instead, a well-written story with characters and development that touches upon the human condition.
From the first listen the song that most grabbed my attention was "Jesus Wept." If you put the lyrical poetry of country legends like George Jones and Johnny Cash together in a collection, the words to "Jesus Wept" would fit in quite comfortably and not feel the slightest bit out-of-place.
Jesus came and Jesus tried, Jesus wept and Jesus died, And I ain't feeling that good myself today. I'm broke as hell, all my bills are due, My girlfriend's mad and my wife is too, And everyone's lined up for judging me.
In the end, however, it is the music that propels this collection and, as musicians go, Utley has surrounded himself with some of the best of the best. I don't know how many takes each song needed to get it right - or how much cutting and splicing Curley had to do to finally get all of the pieces to line up together - but the end result feels like it grew naturally out of the spirit of friendship and collaboration that is Bulletville.
Thank goodness for that.