october 2008

He's That Good

By David McGee

Redd Volkaert
Telehog Records

We previously encountered Redd Volkaert when he was tearing it up as a member of one of Austin's favorite bands, Heybale (profiled in TheBluegrassSpecial.com, June 2008). Reddhead represents a sabbatical from Heybale, one presumes, and what a sabbatical it is. You expect the Master of the Telecaster to dazzle you with some exciting fretwork, and he doesn't disappoint—this is an album abundant in examples of the variety of rich textures and robust tones a virtuoso can elicit from the Tele, too many to enumerate but among the more memorable being the trebly, skittering surf-style runs on "Reddline Fever," the hard charging road song that opens the album; the stinging, wailing signature of the blues on "Call the Pound"; the frisky, cascading, trebly lines of the twin guitars on a buoyant Chester and Lester-style instrumental, "Raisin' the Dickens" (a western swing romp that features pianist Rich Harney working the 88s with a frenzy that would have made the Playboys' "ol' piano pounder" Al Stricklin proud). In fact, you could pick out any song here and rave about the dazzling picking Redd shows off. It's nothing short of breathtaking, as good as any you'll encounter on any record you'll ever hear. He really is that good (ask Merle Haggard, who employed Redd for nigh on to seven years).

What was less predictable was that Redd would prove to be such an effective singer, far more so than was hinted by his couple of solo turns on the Heybale album. He may not be blessed with an awesome multi-octave instrument, but that rich, lived-in baritone of his expresses a world of experience, a surplus of soul, and not a little bit of wry bemusement. You don't have to hit high C when you can get really low down. It works for Redd, whether he's even handedly kissing off a flame that's burned out in "End Of the Line" (there's a heaping helping of Hank Thompson's cool self-control in Redd's matter-of-fact adios attitude here) or adopting a bluesy, John Anderson timbre as a prison lifer plotting his escape in the honky tonk milieu of "I'll Break Out Tonight." The more you hear Redd's engaging voice, the more you want to hear more, because its soul is true, and earned. He really is that good.

And who woulda taken Redd for a philosopher king-in-song? Much of Reddhead deals with woman trouble, a topic Redd seems well acquainted with, but there's hardly a scenario that plays out according to conventional wisdom. To be fair and accurate, some of the songs in question are co-written by Redd and Laura Durham, so the distaff side of the team need be recognized for its contribution. But certain things are straight Redd, no co-writer chaser, such as "Is Anything Alright." The title alone is a tipoff that this brisk shuffle is not about good times in Happy Valley but rather an acknowledgement of things having gone terribly awry in a relationship. "I know you barely get/just everything you want/but you still fuss and fight/is anything alright," Redd rumbles in a moment of sublime understatement that has you hitting the reverse button so you can make sure you heard what you thought you heard. Guys everywhere will recognize the all-too-familiar scenario of feeling like nothing they do can please their voracious significant others-not is everything alright, but is anything alright, for God's sake. Similarly, the air of dread infusing the lilting country heartbreaker ballad, "We Need to Talk," sustains throughout, as Redd parses the semantics like they haven't been parsed in song before: "We need to talk/doesn't really mean we/I sit and listen while she talks about me/How I done her wrong and the line I should walk/I'd rather hear nothing than we need to talk." Maybe we shouldn't get too far into the thundering stomper, "The Pound," gleeful and uproariously politically incorrect, that seems to liken a new gal pal to a "new pup" and the one he dumped to a "hound" who "better not come 'round." Maybe Redd gets off the hook here because Ms. Durham is listed as a co-writer, but the reveling in this polymorphous perversity is strictly R. Crumb inspired. And yes, Redd really is that good.

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