While seemingly rooted deep in tradition, country is really a constantly changing genre. From early forms of bluegrass, it’s made the jump to gospel, honky-tonk, rockabilly, swing, soul, bakersfield, neo, alt and today’s crossover hip-hop schlock. Ten years ago I would have said that this latest disc would be too far under the interest radar of music fans in the Garden State to warrant attention but there’s a huge country presence in Jersey, and pop country is one of the top selling sounds today. After The Reign and their new disc, Hillbilly Clubhouse, hails from the traditional format of the 1970s-1990s Nashville sound.
Composing simple, infectious barroom tunes in the vein of Garth Brooks and George Strait, After The Reign cover the gamut of forlorn love, moonshine, and even arson as on “Burnin’ Down The Farm.” The disc is co-produced by Marc Muller, a guitarist best known for his session work with Shania Twain as well as Steve Forbert, Susan Cagle and several others. Muller’s sound is well known in Nashville and he makes his presence known quickly on Hillbilly Clubhouse, playing everything from lap steel to fiddle and drums.
The disc kicks off with sidewinder tight dobro, fiddle and Willie Kelly vocals, sounding as swampy as something out of the movie Gator and building steadily into that very first call-and-response chorus offering everything from dancing with the devil, booze, and of course, “If you want to fight, ‘Hell yeah,’ we can take it outside,” antics as Muller’s fiddle pierces the bridge well, leading you back into the verse and more good ol’ lyrical fun. Banjos and acoustics duel underneath greasy lap steels, bass and drums. This song is probably a live favorite and I can see fans all over the floor on this one.
“January” oozes much more traditional country with its great mandolin, dobro and tele bite intro, bringing in the acoustic with Kelly’s seasoned storytelling voice. The tune kicks in smoothly with a progressive verse and a great steel-dominated chorus, glassy backing vocals and dynamic throughout. Teles snap and pop the band back into verses.
“Burning Down The Farm” addresses the never-ending battle of bank against the homeowner, exploring the dark and dangerous options of what we call “Rancher Lightening” and the closed-lipped innuendo of a missing persons APB on the banker who started it all. Slathered in a country rock formula, ATR tears it up Charlie Daniels style, launching hot siren slide and lead guitars courtesy of John Strevens and Muller that come flying in from amongst flagrant emergency vehicle radio chatter added to the track.
“Abilene” has sure fired remnants of Glenn Campbell and Ronnie Millsap gold wrapped around solid vocal harmonies and lap steel stigmata courtesy of Muller, once again showing why the biggest names in country turn to this guy when they’re looking for the genuine groans and moans in that truck stop bending zone.
“Ghost Of Nashville” is a ballad tribute to the city of country music itself. The song reminds me of Kim Carnes’ “Total Eclipse Of The heart” and Greatest American Hero theme “Believe It Or Not.” Super commercial and filled with smooth pianos, journeymen guitars and deep, thoughtful vocals, this song tackles the toughest of all formulas in any music—the ballad. The chorus is well-constructed with harmonies and lead guitar tags that wind back into verses and though the song is well done. There isn’t anything really over the top here, a somewhat tough quandary in any ballad let alone country pop.
“Thinking About You” is a fun, dusty ride through bandit country. This one has that mischievous Lynyrd Skynyrd-meets-Commander Cody vibe. Visions of card games, Jack Daniels and bikes and blondes swingin’ in daisy dukes dance across my mind on this raucous honky-tonked thumb to the nose. This is the good stuff here. No pretenses, lots of harmonies, drum stops, and guitars, guitars and more guitars! The reprise of the intro is brilliant here and is the perfect last call to this highlight song of the disc.
Acoustic renderings of three earlier songs on the disc are present here as well and are probably there for specific reasons that only the group could tell you but besides that its all good. ATR definitely hit the “Deer X-ing” sign with the 12 gauge on this, their first release. The songs are tight, the production is top notch and with the exception of a few misfires, they have a nice grouping of country pop charters on their hands. And most important, you can tell they are having the time of their lives. After The Reign can be seen live this Nov. 14 at Mulligans in Farmingdale, NJ. Fore more info scoot on over to afterthereign.net.