Wednesday, December 9, 2009

"Haulin' Grass" by Jerry Butler and John Wade - CD Review

Haulin' Grass” is the out of the box effort by Jerry Butler & the Blu-J's, a new band founded by Jerry along with his friend and bandmate, John Wade. This is Jerry's first effort fronting his own band after years of honing his skills and establishing his reputation with a series of national bands after an apprenticeship in and around his home of Knoxville, TN. During the past decade, he has appeared as lead vocalist with Lynwood Lunsford & the Misty Valley Boys, Pine Mountain Railroad, and for the past three years Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road, where his work received wide recognition and where he developed a strong fan base. A knowledgeable person in the bluegrass world said to me recently, “Jerry has improved every band he's been with, and the bands have never been the same after he left them.” That's quite a reputation for this experienced and high quality former side man to carry into his first effort fronting a band. His voice is instantly recognizable when he shows up on XM/Sirius radio, no matter which band he's singing with and his winning personality shines through his voice.

Jerry Butler

John Wade

Haulin' Grass” is a release from Blue Circle Records, the Tom T. and Dixie Hall label. For a first effort, this sets the bar high, which Butler, Wade, and the pick-up studio band that recorded this CD clear easily. Designed to be a collection of trucker songs, but appealing to anyone who enjoys the sound of bluegrass and classic country, the album is a fully satisfying disk, which would make an excellent Christmas present, especially for your favorite trucker, truck enthusiast, or anyone else who spends a lot of time on the road. The thirteen songs include several originals as well as older songs by Merle Haggard, John Denver, and Lester Flatt. Presenting some classic country songs from the seventies and eighties as well as new work all clearly presented in bluegrass style, “Haulin' Grass” is a satisfying and fun filled romp down the interstate highway system.

“Movin' On” was Merle Haggard's theme song for a 1974 – 1976 TV series of the same name (Wikipedia). A single of the same name was released in 1975. An anthem to the mythic job of the big rig driver, this up tempo song helped to establish the importance and romance of driving the interstate system when it was first recorded and loses none of its charm with this rendition. Coffee, the highway rhythm, gear jamming, and the addiction to the road are believable. Troy Engle's driving banjo roll creates the road rythm for this quintessential trucker's song. Chris Harris contributes one his many first rate mandolin solos on this cut. “It takes a special breed to be a truck drivin' man, a steady hand to pull that load behind,” goes the song. As it does throughout the album, Butler's voice makes the lyric clear as he communicates the likable self that his singing style embodies.

Jerry Butler, John Wade, Tim Goins
“Forty Years of Lonesome” by Don Rigsby and Dixie Hall “was originally written with Larry Sparks in mind, “ says Rigsby, “during the planning stages for his "40" project and he was not sold on it at the time.  I am glad Jerry liked it and he does a nice job on this piece.” Ron Stewart's fiddle playing in counterpoint with Matt Leadbetter on resonator guitar set the tone for this song of leaving the road after forty years of traveling without ever being untrue. “My driving days are through and I'm coming home to you,” but there's something wrong when he arrives at the door.

“Shorty is Forty,” written by Tom T. and Dixie Hall for this album and the featured single on terrestrial and satellite radio, celebrates the truck stop waitress who makes sure that everyone who stops in is greeted by hot coffee, a friendly smile, and her “better than sex cake” regardless of how tired she is or how much her feet hurt. Shorty knows how to handle the come-ons without ever insulting the customer. Anyone who's ever eaten at a truck stop knows Shorty and appreciates her smile, her welcome, and her direct humor. Shorty is a classic American prototype brought to life in this delightful song.

“Backin' to Birmingham” by Lester Flatt appears twice on the album, first in Jerry's very pleasant rendition, and second in a salute to Flatt by Butler singing in his best (which is very, very good) Lester Flatt voice. Jerry's as convincing with his Flatt voice as anyone I've ever heard. As you listen to this song, close your eyes and try to imagine backing an eighteen wheeler down the highway from Chicargo to Birmingham and just sit back smiling.

Bobby Clark

“The Road I'm On” by Dale Pyatt and Steve Thomas is an original for this CD. It's a sad and effective road song capturing the “rough and rocky road/I've learned to take it/life is what you make it/bein' strong/that's the road I'm on” draws an analogy between the truckers life and the broader road of life. Dale Pyatt says, “We wrote the song for workin' people when the fuel was so expensive. That was a great rendition the Blu-J's did and an honor to be included.” This is first rate original song writing interpreted with thoughtfulness and feeling by Butler. Gulley's tenor harmony adds depth and feeling to this sad and mournful song.

Jerry found three of the songs in this collection on old Del Reeves cassette tapes. “Looking at the Road Through a Windshield” was written by Jerry Chesnut and first recorded by Del Reeves who took it to the top five on the country charts. Chesnut had several hits with a variety of country singers, including a Grammy nominated song sung by George Jones. Butler's rendition is a bouncy bluegrass styling of this excellent song. “Legend of the Highway” by Jerry Chesnut & Mike Hoyer (1969) is another song developing the theme of the mythic driver on the open highway, the only competition coming between the singer and his girl. “Be Glad” by Justin Tubb and Kent Westbury was also recorded by Reeves. The song urges people to recognize the gifts of life when they come and to grab the moment. Tubb was a mainstay of the Grand Old Opry and the oldest son of Ernest Tubb. He had a successful career as a song writer. The inclusion of these three songs in bluegrassed versions links bluegrass to the country roots which has diverged from it. “Worth the Ride” by Robert Evans, like “Be Glad” examines facing the difficulties of life and embracing them as an opportunity to make the most of life.

“Eighteen Wheels” by William Boling was first recorded by the Bluegrass Cardinals sometime between 1978 and 1981. The song describes the way in which working as a truck driver to meet the family's needs separates people from the ones they love and may end relationships. The strains of absence may be too much to sustain a good marriage. “Back Home Again” strikes the opposite note, as the singer exults at getting off the road for a while to enjoy the ordinary elements of life, like neighborly gossip, the farm, and being together with loved ones. This John Denver song captures the warmth of home and family.

Daddy's Girl - Sami Butler
“Daddy's Girl,” a new song by Tom T. and Dixie Hall was written especially for Jerry and features his daughter Sami in a a cameo appearance. Any father who's been away and returns to his child will appreciate the sentiment and the warmth of this song, presented simply with Jerry's guitar and a light bass and mandolin rhythm behind it.

John Wade and Jerry Butler

While using a number of songs from the country music repertoire, there's no doubt this is a bluegrass album. Butler's firm, friendly, and always recognizable high baritone voice always keeps the focus on the lyrics, even though the CD is filled with the finest of guest musicians. Throughout the CD, Butler's smile is as clear as it is from the stage. Butler's voice always communicates warmth, sincerity, and the joy of the song while sticking to straight renditions that are bang on the melody. His singing doesn't show off or bring attention to him, rather, he sings the song. He is one of the most appealing and genuine singers to be found on the bluegrass stage today. Joining him on this CD is former Carolina Road bandmate John Wade who is always solid and creative on the electric acoustic bass. The guest list on “Haulin' Grass” includes bluegrass luminaries like Steve Gulley, who provides tight tenor harmonies as only he can do, bringing another voice as comfortable in classic country as it is in bluegrass to the work. Wade's steady baritone vocals complete the trio work. On banjo Kenny Ingram is a standout, along with Troy Engle on four tracks. Chris Harris' solid chop and delightful mandolin solos work extremely well. His background work with fills is pitch perfect. Matt Leadbetter on Dobro is maturing into one of the top resonator guitar players, a worthy successor to his more famous Dad. Ron Stewart contributes his always fine, award winning fiddle to the project. Melissa Lawrence appears in one vocal. The guest appearance by five year old Sami Butler on “Daddy's Girl” makes the song especially poignant.

Dixie Hall wrote, “When Tom T. and I wrote Daddy’s Girl for Jerry Butler, a truck driving album was farthest from our minds. Likewise with “Shorty” and “Forty Years of Lonesome.” But, truck drivers are daddies, too and what would a truck stop be without an engaging personality such as Shorty? Forty Years of Lonesome (an idea from Don Rigsby) is just as applicable to a truck driver as any loved one whose career takes him across the miles and the years. John & Jerry have done a marvelous job of presenting America’s truckers as real people not just shadows on the road. Every song is “right on” and we sum it up as a very outstanding project worthy of launching this group into the fast lane!”

Also unanticipated when this project began were the band changes to come. As a result, Jerry Butler and John Wade have formed Jerry Butler and the Blu-J's. As might be expected, the only players in the new band found on “Haulin' Grass” are Jerry and John. The band's earliest performances were in conjunction with the Carolina Road Road Homecoming Festival. When Lorraine Jordan decided to change to a more Monroe-centric sound, Jerry and John agreed that the new project had opened wider opportunities to reach out on their own. After discussing options with Lorraine, it was decided that Jerry and John should run with the new band while “Haulin' Grass” was fresh. Family concerns forced father-son pickers Jim and Jason Fraley to leave the band after about six months, but the addition of Bobby Clark, formerly of the Williams & Clark Expedition has brought deep experience and a widely recognized mandolinist to the group. Tim Goins on Dobro fits musically and helps add a restrained and somewhat quirky comedic strain to the Blu-J's performance. Daniel Oxendine has recently joined the band on banjo. Jerry, following J.D. Crowe's lead, characterizes the group as “pure American music.” The band can be counted on to offer first rate bluegrass music within the context of high level, entertaining performance. They're seeking bookings now, and will prove themselves to give high value to promoters.

Jerry Butler
People wishing to purchase “Haulin' Grass” can get it at here . This is a well-structured recording which deserves purchase as a complete CD. While given a title designed to appeal to truckers, anyone who spends time on the road will appreciate the songs and sentiments of this fine production.