The crew at Big Muddy Records has always had an ear for St. Louis' varied strands of country music, from the bruised, punk-infused songs of the late Bob Reuter to the earliest incarnations of Pokey LaFarge's folk-blues revivalism. But on Jack Grelle's second LP, Steering Me Away, Big Muddy now has a bona-fide classic country album on its shelf, complete with honky-tonk twang and a Music Row slickness not normally found in the local Stag-and-strum set.
Credit Grelle's crack backing band for much of the sparkle on these songs: Justin Brown (Dock Ellis Band) steps up on nearly every track with plucky, dialed-in lead guitar while Tom Heath (the Hobosexuals) should get a backing-vocalist credit for his pedal steel work -- his lithe playing offers a constant counterpoint to Grelle's singing. Local legend Gary Hunt, best known for his time with Colonel Ford and the most recent incarnation of Son Volt, proves as apt on fiddle as he normally is on guitar and mandolin, particularly on opening track "Four Doors." Throw in a few members of Alley Ghost, the Hooten Hallers and the Rum Drum Ramblers, and you have a wrecking crew that can pay homage to by-the-book country numbers with both reverence and soul.
But those songs rest on Grelle's shoulders, and he proves an apt student of classic country's contours and themes, which leaves an assured (if surprise-free) album as a result. There's a Bakersfield rumble running through "Only In My Dreams," a tale of a road-weary musician longing for a respite from the confines of the tour van, and the musicians shift from that train-beat to a half-time sway to tell two sides of the story. The gentle lope of "Santa Fe" gets a mournful tint thanks to Ryan Koenig's harmonica, but LeAnne Fisher's harmony vocals lighten a sad song and drive home some of the heartbreak in the lyrics.
As a bandleader, Grelle is wise to prop up these songs with top-shelf talent rather than leave them unadorned. Taken on its own, Grelle's voice has an earthy cragginess to it with neither the grit nor sweetness of some of the heroes that he's channeling, but his vocals are sturdy enough to sell a chestnut like "(She Thinks I'm) Cheatin'." It's a song and sentiment heard a hundred times before, but on that track and throughout Steering Me Away, Grelle makes his case for pure, undiluted country in a town with a habit of hybrid-izing the genre.
Stream the track "Santa Fe" below, and listen to the whole album now via CMT Edge.
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