When I think about the style of Chuck Schaeffer’s performance, it’s usually been in the form of solo acoustic at some show that has 20 acts. Light years away from the passion-fueled attention of a full band, it’s easy to get lost in the sauce at one of these shows. Like most writers that understand patience and persistence, Schaeffer has raised his visibility to fans while reinventing his craft from the ground up. His style has grown and seasoned as he turns his sights towards Nashville country with his latest disc, Along These Lines.
Produced by Michael Carr (Holland Studios), Along These Lines takes a fine look at our American way of life through the eyes of a writer that sees the glass half full even when he’s taking pot shots at “the man.” The follow-up effort to Living History, the disc features seven tracks written or co-written by Chuck, plus contributions from award-winning songwriters including Craig Bickhardt, Jim Femino, Jim Carolan, Liz Miller, and Bill DiLuigi.
Schaeffer is unapologetically American. He supports our troops selflessly through his music and live shows. He tells you about growing up with one-hit wonders and Jimmy Buffett on the jukebox at his grandparents’ bar. Apple pie and baseball meld with Orville Wright and “Big Ole’ Buicks” in the writer’s description of his life to date. Wide open sounds clash against chicken-picked midtones of grandeur, as Schaeffer takes on everything from Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the complexities of a relationship communication breakdown on Along These Lines.
The album kicks off to the big block sounds of super-fueled race cars tearing around the Talladega track and burning into the minds of country-loving rock-and-rollers coast to coast. Fast-paced, Neo-Nashville, and filled with NASCAR imagery, “The Earnhardt Jr. Blues” throttles down the lyrical highway to the checkered flag. Schaeffer’s pit crew wastes no time getting him way out front and on the fast track to a vocal downshift around the corners. Slide guitars screech into the ass end of honky-tonked blues riffs and barrel-house pianos that careen to the finish line. This tune doesn’t stray too far from familiar territory, but it’s still a whole lot of fun.
“Tougher Than You” chugs along with all the attitude of a wasp-stung mule. Schaeffer and company put a finger in the face of the world’s bosses and bullies before throwing out some of the cleanest lead guitar this side of Tut Taylor’s back porch. This is one of my favorites off the disc. I can see it causing a ruckus on the country charts in the near future in both New Jersey and the world beyond.
Chuck Schaeffer dances on the edge of all things Clint Black on the title track. Slow-paced and introspective, this particular ballad is believable in a format that is a blind spot for most performers. Usually a lack of understanding is demonstrated when writers merely slow down a song when they should be imparting artistic feel and emotional transformation, but “Along These Lines” is crisp and thematically sound. Schaeffer brings in background vocals at the right time, building this song in layers, as Carr weaves silken webs of mandolin magic over the top of Schaeffer’s James Taylor vibe.
“Jenny Says” is another look at a simple, down-home life, and the blue collar tradition of small-town love through the eyes of the good guy. Acoustic guitars chirp and strum, supporting lead vocal and harmony in a traditional yet underrated way. Single string leads are tasteful and short, making way for melody and ducking back into the cover of pianos, strings, and percussive highlights. With “Jenny Says,” Schaeffer demonstrates his ability to stand shoulder to shoulder with anyone in pop country today.
Multi-instrumentalist and producer Michael Carr shows his true worth all over Along These Lines. His knowledge of part placement is key, and his skill as a guitarist rivals any top-shelf Nashville picker on the trail to guitar legend glory. He demonstrates his prowess once again on “Call On Me,” a twang fest of hillbilly urgency with Schaeffer imploring the subject, “Day or night, pick up the phone. Call on me.” Carr flies like a runaway train on this track and it’s lethal. Trills, double-stops and chicken-picked runs tear through the middle of this tune like a sharp pitchfork through a dry bale of hay. Schaeffer’s voice isn’t quite as strong on this fast-paced truck-stop bender, at times sounding thin and reedy, but in the end he manages to pull himself up by his bootstraps and hang in for the ride.
Other disc highlights include the backwoods delivery of “Fish On The Line,” a tune where Schaeffer waxes poetic about the time-tested art of “reeling one in” while spending time with the kids. The lyrics mix sunny imagery of meditative time on a simple lake catching fish and having fun with kids that grow up in the blink of an eye. Backing vocals by Emily Waisempacher add sparkle and depth to an already great composition. Slide guitars introduce the verses and analog-warm pianos glint in the background of this rural gold-winner that’s sure to get noticed by 106.3’s Country Thunder.
“Strangers Again” is another standout by Schaeffer and his band. Acoustic guitars pluck melodic symmetry behind Chuck’s unique country voice. Background vocals by Kris Ballerini make this some of the smoothest ear candy to come out of my speakers in quite a while. Simple theme connections and Smoky Mountain melodies put this in the top three cuts of Along These Lines.
“2X4” is a swampy, white lightning tune that bristles with attitude and sound. Guitars jag and pop as organs (thanks to Marc Young) whirl between verses. The rhythm work is solid, supplying the backbone for Schaeffer and Carr to jump up and down on. This is a song I would try to push to David Allen Coe. “2X4” is chock full of rattlesnake venom, saddle grease and gun oil as it gallops across the musical gamut. Organ solos flutter and fly with bell clear guitar lines like fireflies exploding in the early evening tobacco fields of Lexington, Kentucky.
Country used to be scoffed at here in the east. Now it is big money and an art form that’s embraced by radio and clubs throughout the state. Chuck Schaeffer is a New Jersey artist that is actually getting somewhere, becoming more popular by the day and adding a wagon load of fans along the way. With influential heroes such as John Prine and Dwight Yoakam, his motivation and direction are becoming clearer with each record he makes.
The one thing I see a stumble on is the material he takes on for this record. Some of it is a perfect fit while some songs seemed forced or strained. But part of the growth process is seeing what fits and trying to follow that course as a writer and from what I’ve seen here, if Schaeffer continues his focus as a collaborator, he just might be poised to join the new batch of eastern hillbillies cashing in truck-stop dreams of country gold.
For more information on Chuck Schaeffer, his music, and upcoming shows, head over to chuckschaeffer.com.