Of all the young neo-honky-tonkers on the circuit -- there's more than you'd guess -- Roger Wallace may be the most convincing. That hasn't always been the case. His 2000 debut, Hillbilly Heights, was a rather claustrophobic affair, a Spartan tryst between Hank Sr. minimalism and crystalline studio modernism. Austin guitar legend and producer Jim Stringer didn't even try to cover Wallace's gangly vocal exertions. Honky-tonk ghosts might have haunted those sessions, but Wallace sang like the Ramblin' Man himself had a gun to his head. What should have been natural, swinging and bluesy (Wallace first went to Austin for the blues scene) felt laborious and insular.
But three years and two records down the road, Wallace sounds like some heir apparent to (dare it be said?) Marty Robbins. At times jazzy, at times pop-savvy, his most recent album, The Lowdown, doesn't just push all the right honky-tonk buttons--it rewires the whole damn juke joint jukebox. Every twangy lick, every vocal melisma vibrates with the emotional thrills, the sorrow and the humor, of their hillbilly-cum-Nashville aspirations. Wallace has excised pat clichés from his songwriting: The title track of The Lowdown and the surprisingly lyrical "There's a Song In There Somewhere" are as convincing as that riveting, authoritative tenor. If Wallace echoes the past, those echoes don't drown him out. Imitation isn't the cardinal sin some rock critics claim(at least not in country music), but at some point even the best student of the past thinks Wayne Hancock needs to graduate and get a real artistic life. Wallace has done just that.