Bentley’s Bandstand: “Crazy Heart” Original Soundtrack, B.J. Thomas, Joe Louis Walker

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billbentley110BY BILL BENTLEY

B.J. Thomas, I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry – Tomorrow Never Comes, Collectors’ Choices

B.J.ThomasBlessed with a great soul voice that also had an undeniable strength singing country, B.J. Thomas started his career as a teenager fronting the Triumphs in Houston. But by the time he recorded his debut album, he knew the set list of primarily rhythm & blues needed to be expanded, and at the end of the all-night session he decided to honor his father’s desire he do a country selection, in this case Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Genius. Thomas’ totally expressive voice is given such freedom on the classic that he almost invents a whole new genre in the process. He captures the overwhelming forlornness in Williams’ stab at eternity, and it’s no understatement to say greatness is in the house on this unlikely Top Ten hit from 1965. But there it was, and B.J. Thomas was off to the races. Unfortunately it would take several years for the Texan to crack the upper reaches of the charts again, and a quick listen to all the other songs on this reissue set shows why. The cover songs, like “It’s Not Unusual” and “Midnight Hour,” are serviceable but surely not special, and there is a one-dimensionalness to most of Mark Charron’s original that keeps the music tightly tethered to the earth. Try as Thomas might, it almost sounds like he knows he is skiing uphill, even as the gifted singer never gives it less than his best. A few albums away lurked the song “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” and a long ride of popular releases. But still, there is such a purity of expression on Hank Williams’ title song from that very first album, not to mention the cover photo of a young man with his head in his hand complete with a high school ring on it, that in many ways it remains B.J. Thomas’ most moving musical moment, done for his daddy. That’s soul.

Joe Louis Walker, Between A Rock And The Blues
, Stony Plain Records

joelouiswalkerThe evolution of the blues keeps twisting and turning, never something that can be predicted with great accuracy but always relied on to stay strong. There are those like Joe Louis Walker who are so far into the music it’s like they live and breathe it. The blues’ ability to supply solace and inspiration is beyond question, and even if these prime movers get off the track for a bit, they somehow come back with deep dedication. Walker has been in the chase a very long time, and despite a tumble or two has never lost the way. His guitar playing is often devastating, capable of both slashing through songs like a sharp knife, and also displaying at other times pure tenderness to caress the sounds. Between A Rock And The Blues is his most personal album yet, one that feels like it comes from the very pages of his life. Originals like “If There’s a Heaven” and “I’ve Been Down,” both recorded with guest guitarist Kevin Eubanks, touch those moments in Walker’s world that feel like they are moments of salvation, and came right at the time when he needed them most. Others, like producer Duke Robillard’s “Tell Me Why” and Ray Charles’ “Blackjack” are perfect fits for someone who has lived the fast life and is finding out what there is to learn from it. Joe Louis Walker’s vocals are practically lethal, and capture what it’s like when the killing floor is about to come home. The blues has always been the foundation of American music, a style that comes from the suffering of those who lived without choice but learned to never given in to defeat. On the day when we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and all those struggles in the hopes and dreams of his people, it’s also a good time to remember how those very struggles are still portrayed in the blues to this very day. And no one is doing that with more soul now than this man.

Various Artists, Crazy Heart Original Soundtrack, New West Records

crazy-heartThere are tons of highways out there in the United States, and it’s a good bet there are always hundreds of country musicians criss-crossing them at any given time, either leaving or heading for a barroom or honky tonk to play another show on that endless road. It’s a time-honored tradition, and for many of those musicians, it’s the only job they’ll ever know. The chances of catching the rising star in Nashville–and even more importantly holding on to it–are slim and getting slimmer these days, but the real vets don’t complain. They do the show, get the dough and drive on to the next stop on the schedule. Jeff Bridges plays just such a trooper in Crazy Heart, and the movie is a hearty dose of realism chased by a shot of romance and a side order of optimism. But, really, it’s a rough ride and Bridges knows it. So does T Bone Burnett, who produced this whopper of a soundtrack, one that veers from early heroes like the Delmore Brothers, Kitty Wells (!), Louvin Brothers and blues guru Lightnin’ Hopkins, through second generation kingpins George Jones, Buck Owens and Waylon Jennings right into more recent dazzlers Lucinda Williams, Sam Phillips, the late Stephen Bruton and newcomer Ryan Bingham. Then there’s Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You.” No one rambled and raised hell on the road like this man, or opened his soul to what happened out there all the way like he did. This song says it all. All this music pulls at the heart like a gritty romance novel, testifying to the days of cheap wine and wilting roses without the false sentiment that once threatened to drown the sound coming out of Music City. Leave it to Burnett to zero in on the resignation in the life of Bridges’ character, and tell the musical story with equal parts grace and grimace. He even lets Jeff Bridges take a turn at the microphone a couple of times to moving effect, along with Colin Farrell.  Throw in Lydia Mendoza’s chilling “Mal Hombre” and actor Robert Duval’s prayerful performance of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever,” and this spirit-saving soundtrack might do for heartbreak what Burnett’s O Brother Where Art Thou did for bluegrass. Or at least let’s hope so.

Bill Bentley is a writer, musician, publicist, record producer and A&R director. He once played drums with Lightnin’ Hopkins. For more reviews and music news, go to

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