With his former group, the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash, Mark Stuart injected a shot of traditional country into the broad biceps of what was confusingly called "alt-county." Now, with his songwriting chops and reedy baritone intact, he's written a new chapter under the title "Mark Stuart and the Bastard Sons."
"Always been a restless, ramblin' man / Never stayed long in any town / Never could hold a good job down / Always been a restless, ramblin' man." Stuart's one of the few artists who can deliver lines like that with neither irony nor slick Nashville nausea. He does perform over 200 shows a year, after all, and so can claim to actually be a ramblin' man.
That schedule probably helps account for how easy he makes it all sound on this record, from the rockers ("When Love Comes A-Callin'", "Power of a Woman") to a love ballad like "Lonestar, Lovestruck, Blues," where he sings: "Now that I've found what I was looking for / I never had so much to lose." Even when the rambler man comes home, he's attuned to the possibility of loss.
The straightforward minor-key "Gone Like a Raven" is one of my favorite tracks, with its sad-eyed advice. Then Stuart and his ace musicians blast away those blues with a rockabilly beat in "Seven Miles to Memphis." In the infectious rocker "Fireflies" he couches an indictment of big-box commercialism and hyper-connectedness in joyful rock chords:
The little guy he can't make it any more
Starbucks and Wal-Mart don't give a fuck about you and us
Gettin' screwed ain't nothing new
Bet your ass it's happening to you…
Fireflies and corn liquor
Gonna have a little fun tonight
Find myself a hard-luck woman
Go dancin' 'neath the pale moonlight
Then everything goes slidy and sloshy in "Everything's Goin' My Way," and the good times are back in unadulterated form.
There's no filler here; it's all good, heartfelt stuff with a handful of great hooks sprinkled in, smartly played by an all-pro but understated band that includes fiddlin', mandolinin', and the cracklin' Lars Albrecht on guitar. Mark Stuart's new chapter is a satisfying summer read.