june 2008

Shuffle 5 Records

If you’re going to a honky tonk, Heybale! is the band you want to find playing there when you walk in. The basic quintet is anchored by veterans Earle Poole Ball on piano and Redd Volkaert on guitar, whose resumes are formidable: Ball has logged tenures with Johnny Cash (a 20-year tenure, in fact), Merle Haggard, Gram Parsons and Buck Owens (he also played on the Byrds’ landmark Sweetheart of The Rodeo album), Volkaert spent six years as Hag’s guitarist in the ‘90s. Their younger compadres also boast impressive credentials: drummer Tom Lewis is in Raoul Malo’s band (Malo helped mix this album) and he’s recorded with Hank Thompson and Junior Brown; standup bassman Kevin Smith currently tours with Dwight Yoakam. Lead vocalist-rhythm guitarist Gary Claxton, who has worked the road for the past two decades and is a favorite of the Austin crowd, makes his mark as both a vocalist and a songwriter. Singing in a high, aching tenor, Claxton has a good feel for the emotional shadings of a song and the proper vocal dynamics to bring out deeper feelings, as evidenced right off the bat when he channels the aggrieved partner of a faithless wife in his gently stomping kissoff, “Guess Where I’ll Be This Morning.” In his seductive, swooning waltz, “House of Secrets,” he works a twist on the cheatin’ song in a story of mutual duplicity and reconciliation, his pinched, crying vocal given pillowy support by Volkaert’s bluesy guitar and some rich, heart tugging steel guitar moans courtesy guest musician Cindy Cashdollar (whose empathetic, soulful support, on steel and dobro, is one of many highlights here). Apart from his precise, personable guitar work, Volkaert has his own star turns as a vocalist. Singing in a muscular tenor that recalls no one so much as Ernest Tubb, Redd brings abundant, low-key melancholy to Willie Nelson’s “Mr. Record Man,” as Cashdollar adds evocative steel swirls behind him and Ball interjects some tear-stained honky tonk piano flourishes. Ball sings in a more conversational mode, employing his husky tenor effectively on the humorous Tex-Mex flavored confession of a fellow on the downside, “Livin’ In a Cheap Motel,” and lending a genial suggestiveness to the easygoing come-on, “Honky Tonk Mood,” both of them Ball originals, the latter enlivened by his own glissando runs on the 88s. The tune stack is further rounded out by a lively western swing instrumental, “Heybalin’,” which is an occasion for Volkaert and Ball to craft some jazzy solos on their respective instruments, and the song’s composer, band friend Erik Hokkanen, to contribute a lively fiddle run to spice up the proceedings. Speaking of fiddle runs, Elana James, late of the Hot Club of Cowtown and always terrific in any context, adds a few sprightly, dexterous solos to support Volkaert’s hearty admonishments to yet another wandering woman in the deceptively upbeat western swing approach to “Hang Your Head In Shame.” All of this serves to undermine the album title, because no one in their right mind would want this to be the last of anything we hear of Heybale! Yea, verily, the last shall be the first (of many to come).—David McGee

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024