It’s over 3 years since Nothing Shines Like Neon was released, so we’ve been waiting a long time for a new Randy Rogers Band album. They’ve taken the time to get things down they way they wanted. Now it’s finally here, was it worth the wait?
Hellbent, their eighth studio release, continues with the kind of sound they’ve adopted since leaving the Nashville mainstream. There’s a more rustic patina to their country-rock style on the recent recordings, replacing the more polished sound of their MCA recordings. On this album, it makes for an overall rootsier atmosphere, whether it’s on one of the rockier tracks like “Comal County Line” or something a little more mellow such as “Anchors Away”.
Brady Black’s fiddle is one of the central planks of the band’s sound, and producer Dave Cobb has pushed it further to the front of the mix. It’s a smart move, as it often takes what would normally be the lead guitar line. There’s still plenty of guitar, of course, but the only guitar solo I heard appears on “You, Me and a Bottle”, and even then the fiddle shares the spotlight. It’s a mark of the album as a whole that none of the songs are drawn out or padded with unnecessary bridges, choruses and the like. They’re all slimmed down to do the job, get the story across and on to the next. It doesn’t make it rushed or hurried – it just makes it clean.
Rogers has continued to mine a fruitful songwriting partnership with Sean McConnell, and the pairing provide 4 of the album’s 11 tracks. Of those 4, I particularly liked “We Never Made It To Mexico”, a waltz time tale of an abandoned guy flying solo to Mexico. The way they’ve worked a few words of Spanish into the lyric without it sounding forced or clichéd seems to give extra emphasis to the guy’s heartbreak somehow. “Fire In The Hole” is another Rogers/McConnell contribution, describing a particularly combustible relationship. It opens with “The words that we use are a hell of a fuse | And the last thing we need is a spark”. It sounds like that ignition is coming anyway. Fire in the hole, indeed.
The title of this album is drawn from the band’s cover of Guy Clark’s collaboration with Chris & Morgane Stapleton, “Hellbent On A Heartache”. Where the older Clark’s delivery is a weary, cracked fragility and rearward-looking regret, Rogers’ version picks up the tempo, faces forwards and feels to have the optimism that comes from knowing you have the time to try again. Same lyrics in both recordings, just approached from different perspectives. Whichever cut you prefer, it’s a cracking song and definitely one of the highlights of this album.
“Crazy People” was the lead-off release from the album. It’s a well-worked story of a kid being told by his parents to keep away from the wrong crowd. It has some really nice imagery in a very relatable lyric that could be custom made for an audience sing-along. It even has the band chipping in with a “Nah nah nah nah” chant in the chorus – and that’s not something you get every day from the Randy Rogers Band – so even if you’re at a gig and don’t know all the words, you can join in with the band on the chant.
“Wine in a Coffee Cup” is something I could easily hear Midland performing, but I can’t quite imagine them handling such a dramatic character lyric as this. It’s the story of a broken woman holding her professional life together through surreptitious alcohol consumption. It’s certainly made vividly tragic in RRB’s hands.
Album closer “Good One Coming On” has Randy ruminating on his career, “I still worry about the same old thing | Is anybody gonna come and hear me sing | And even if they do, won’t have a thing to sing about”. On the evidence of Hellbent, he really shouldn’t lose too much sleep over that. I asked earlier if this album was worth the wait. Answer – most definitely, Yes.
In a country music scene that can seem awash with a certain type of homogenised Nashville “product”, artists like the Randy Rogers Band are absolutely essential. It would be easy simply to point to their “authenticity”, and how they’re grounded in Texas country tradition, etc, and that’s all perfectly virtuous – but it would be meaningless unless they were actually good at what they do. In fact, they’re so far beyond good, and this new album continues to prove it. They’re celebrating 20 years together this year with the same line-up throughout, and you could forgive anyone with that kind of longevity if they were to think about slowing down or even winding up altogether. There’s no sign here of resting on their laurels and taking it easy any time soon. We should all be thankful for that.
- Drinking Money
- I’ll Never Get Over You
- Anchors Away
- Comal County Line
- Hell Bent on a Heartache
- You, Me and a Bottle
- We Never Made It To Mexico
- Crazy People
- Fire in the Hole
- Wine in a Coffee Cup
- Good One Coming On
Comal County Line, Hell Bent on a Heartache, We Never Made It To Mexico
Six Shooter Rating
8.5 out of 10