Onward is Stoney LaRue’s first album in 4 years and arrives following the lengthy resolution of a domestic issue and associated legal proceedings that threatened to derail his already long career. It was evidently something that shook him deeply. In pre-release press, Stoney was quoted as saying, “I’ve been writing a lot and figuring out what direction I am going in. That’s why this album is called ‘Onward.’ It’s a more mature album written about myself, humanity and the truth. The writing of it turned out to be medicine that didn’t have to be prescribed.” Gary Nicholson was enlisted to produce, and he also co-writes most of the tracks. So, what to make of this new album?
If you’re looking for an album of straight-up classic country, you’re in the wrong place – this is Red Dirt territory, and the influences are somewhat broader. You will however find a solid country heart to this album in tracks such as You Ought To Know Me By Now, Message In A Bottle, I Can’t Help You Say Goodbye and Let’s Chase Each Other Round The Room Tonight.
You Oughta Know Me By Now opens the album, and it’s somewhat relaxed and languid feel is classic Red Dirt. It’s a song that features a guy who is acknowledging his shortcomings but who is also essentially at peace with them. Nicholson and Shawn Camp wrote it specifically for Stoney, and there’s a certain sense to the song that could be thought of as biographical. It’s a very steady opener that brings Don Williams to mind, and the openness and honesty of the lyric sets the stall for the rest of Onward.
Message In A Bottle is about as traditional country as they come, both in story and in sound. Basically, she left him because of his drinking, and the aching pedal steel tells you exactly how he feels about that before Stoney has sung a word. It’s a gorgeous track, and the bottom end of his voice has a whiskey soaked quality that’s just perfect for it.
I Can’t Help You Say Goodbye is another “she’s leaving” song but with a different tone. “I can help you get your things all together | I can even hold you when you cry | I’ll be here for you for worse, or for better | But I can’t help you say goodbye”. There’s no animosity in lines like that, just the regret of a broken relationship.
Stoney’s cover of Haggard’s Let’s Chase Each Other Around The Room is suitably playful, and LaRue’s voice again is a key component of that. The little slides he adds to his delivery are almost like eyebrow wiggles that add suggestion and innuendo to what is, by modern standards, a pretty mild lyric.
With that all said, listeners would be right to expect to hear sounds from beyond the regular country music palette.
Hill Country Boogaloo, for example, has a funky clavinet riff that owes a lot to Stevie Wonder’s Superstition but it’s rooted firmly in the San Antonio area, with it’s name checks for John T. Floores Country Store, Greune Hall and the Guadalupe River. It’s also incredibly catchy.
Evil Angel, a Jesse Winchester cover, is given a fitting gospel layer thanks to the combined talents of McCrary Sisters and Asleep At The Wheel‘s Ray Benson. You can just imagine them on one of Stoney’s shoulders, while the Evil Angel of the title is whispering away in his opposite ear.
Worry Be Gone, a Gary Clark/Lee Roy Parnell/Gary Nicholson co-write, sounds like a Randy Newman song. With its steel guitar and “wah-wah” trumpet combination it could easily have been lifted from one of Newman’s Toy Story movie soundtracks – except it’s basically an advertisement for smoking weed, so maybe not!
Possibly the most touching lyric on the album is found on Thought You’d Wanna Know. Everyone needs to know that someone is available sometimes, and Stoney makes it clear here. I’ve only room to share a snippet of the lyric here but that would be to take the lines out of their proper context – so I won’t. I’ll just say that they certainly had me welling up.
One of the lighter tracks on the album is Falling and Flying. Some will remember this song as part of the soundtrack to the Crazy Heart movie starring Jeff Bridges (who also sang it in the movie). I don’t know if it’s been included here for it’s reflective nature, it could be seen as Stoney claiming it as his own way of expressing the reasons behind that 4 year gap between albums. Whatever – it’s a really good song, and the arrangement it’s been given with an almost Zydeco accordion prominent in the mix gives it a bit of extra “pep”.
There’s another guest appearance on Meet In The Middle, a song about compromise in relationships. Tanya Tucker joins in on this one, and her grittier, edgier vocal contrasts with Stoney’s smoother style as if to emphasise the point that differences can be used to good effect. It’s a bluesy rocker with organ and harmonica that fairly bounces along, without going overboard.
The album closes with High Time, a track that was recorded with Brandon Jenkins and originally released on his album Tail Lights In A Boomtown shortly before Jenkins’ untimely death last year. Stoney and Brandon were good friends, so it’s a fitting tribute to include the song here. They have 2 completely different vocal styles, but they do work well together. It’s almost a metaphor for Red Dirt music as a whole; bringing different things together and making something different that just works.
Taken as a whole, Onward is a little more… polished than Stoney’s previous albums. If that sounds like a criticism, it’s not. It’s more that Stoney has a reputation as one of the rockier Red Dirt acts but this album is, well, less that. Onward sees him exposing a slightly softer side, maybe more romantic at times if you will. Perhaps some of this is down to the production of Gary Nicholson, and I’ll assume that Stoney has given that the thumbs up.
If you compare this release to earlier albums, you’ll hear many of the same elements – but here they’ve matured, as you might reasonably expect over time from any artist. Where once a lyric might have veered towards brash or rowdy, now the sentiments really do feel that they’re from someone who has seen a little more of life and is expressing that in his writing. Life has knocked some of the roughness off of Stoney LaRue. Perhaps it has been tough – traumatic, even. But I think that’s where the real polish in this album has come from.
- You Oughta Know Me By Now
- Hill Country Boogaloo
- Falling And Flying
- Not One Moment
- Meet In The Middle (w/ Tanya Tucker)
- Message In A Bottle
- Evil Angel
- Drowning In Moonlight
- Worry Be Gone
- I Can’t Help You Say Goodbye
- Let’s Chase Each Other Around The Room
- Thought You’d Wanna Know
- High Time (w/ Brandon Jenkins)
Message In A Bottle, Thought You’d Wanna Know, Hill Country Boogaloo
Six Shooter Rating
8 out of 10