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Music Review: Watermelon Slim – Escape From The Chicken Coop

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Watermelon Slim’s music career has been genuinely meteoric. Despite a late start, within a few short years he released three wildly successful (in blues terms) discs, captured numerous awards, and established an enviable reputation for scorching live shows with The Workers, his hard-touring, road-tested crew.

So what to do next? Slim, whose moniker comes from real life – he really did drive a watermelon truck – made his way to Nashville to record a country album, working this time out with hired guns and collaborating with go-to-guy Gary Nicholson, a songwriter and guitarist who’s played a significant role in Delbert McClinton’s success over the years.

Much has been made of the Slim’s switch to country, but in truth the disc isn’t a big departure from previous efforts. Never one to be confined to convention, Slim’s always forged a distinct and highly individual sound. Here it’s steel guitars and occasional fiddle propping up his tunes, rather than the sizzling slide and harmonica he’s known for. And while the format might incorporate more than twelve-bar convention, Slim’s songs are still hardscrabble tales of lovin’ and leavin’ and hurtin’ – the bedrock of both blues and country.

That’s not to say Slim’s content to coasting on the strength of clichéd song structures. While opener “Caterpillar Whine (long Line Skinner)” is a driving (pun intended) trucker song with Slim’s slide providing the power, he quickly changes gears with “Skinny Women And Fat Cigars,” a loping country shuffle with fiddle front and centre. “You See Me Like I See You,” a duet with Jenny Littleton, is a classic country two-stepper, and Roy Acuff’s “Wreck On The Highway” gets a stripped-down arrangement that emphasizes the gravelly gravitas of Slim’s voice to excellent effect.

Things get a little different with “Friends On The Porch,” a spoken-word meditation on life’s simple pleasures and the passing of time. It's not typical of either blues or country, but while it may not bear repeated listens it works in context. Elsewhere there’s the humorous “Hank Williams You Wrote My Life” (as hokey and as much fun as it sounds) and “America’s Wives,” no doubt well-intentioned but rather patronizing in practice. “It’s Never Too Hard To Be Humble” is a thoroughly tongue-in-cheek look at the plight of the working poor, while the closing trio are all hard-core honky-tonk, borrowing from the blues (the easy-going shuffle of “Truck Drivin’ Songs”) and bluegrass (“18, 18 Wheeler,” a driving (natch!) tune about life in the road.

Though he only takes co-writing credit on a pair, one hears the influence of Nicholson’s past work here – he contributes guitar to most tracks, and there’s a rollicking roadhouse sound reminiscent of McClinton at his best. But while the feel may be familiar, there’s no question this is a Watermelon Slim disc – his slightly slurred vocals are distinct, and this is one of those outings that seem permeated with personality. There’s simply no way this project could be by anyone other than Slim, and in a world of indistinguishable singers delivering interchangeable and instantly forgettable fodder, it’s downright refreshing to hear an iconic artist with a readily recognizable and thoroughly individual approach.

Having taken the blues world by storm, Watermelon Slim seems poised to make an equally strong mark in the world of country. Escape From The Chicken Coop should appeal to fans of both genres – and if a bit of cross-pollinating results in new fans on either side of the road, so much the better …!

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