Label: Helltrain Records
“I hear that train a ‘comin.” These immortal words by Johnny Cash begin his classic song, “Folsom Prison Blues.” The song was recorded early in The Man in Black’s career, and these opening words forecasted his nearly fifty years as the dominant force in country music. While today’s mainstream country radio bears next to no resemblance to the soulful sound established by Cash and others, in the underground scene, there’s a new train a ’comin to take country back. JB Beverley and The Wayward Drifters are not only on this train, but their debut album, Dark Bar and a Jukebox, establishes them already as preeminent passengers. With a sound that combines the hobo spirit of Jimmie Rodgers, the attitude of Johnny Cash, and the heavy banjo of Bill Monroe, Beverley and the band have created an album that will please any traditional country music fan.
As a songwriter, Beverley shows a great deal of skill. Dark Bar and a Jukebox features several well-crafted songs, both lyrically and musically. There is a lot of variety as well, and many standout tracks. The album begins with the excellent, straight-up fast bluegrass number, “Shoulda Thought About It.” The title track, a to-the-point criticism of today’s country radio, stands up with the best of the songs with a similar message. ”Memories of You” is an old-time country weeper, which could have been written by Hank Williams, Sr. “Before They Get These Cuffs On Me” is a fun, Jimmie Rodgers-esque story song about a bank robber. Beverley pays tribute to the dedicated live supporters of live music in “Going to the Show,” and “Ghost of Old DC” is quite possibly the greatest song ever written about a haunted train. Perfect musically and lyrically, it’s a masterpiece in every way. Finally, the album also features a different sort of “Train Song,” an excellent high-speed rumble down the musical tracks. Listeners can’t help but go along for the ride.
Yet, the album’s greatest tracks find Beverley writing autobiographical episodes. These songs, “Lonesome Loaded and Cold,” “Rainin in Philly,” and “Wayward Drifter” are written with so much heart that even if they aren’t 100%, the listener believes every word. Filled with helplessness, hopelessness, homelessness, and heartbreak, they don’t just pull at one’s heartstrings, they rip them apart.
Of course, the lyrics aren’t the only strength of the album. The music is also tremendous. Beverley and Johnny Ray Carroll, Jr (AKA Johnny Lawless) play a great acoustic guitar and bass, respectively, and the incomparable Dan Mazer (AKA Banjer Dan) handles the banjo, dobro, and mandolin duties. Mazer is incredible, and his signature banjo is essential to the band’s sound. To make these songs even better, Beverley brought in other excellent musical guests as well. The fabulous Donnie Herron of BR549 and Bob Dylan’s current touring band brings his skill with the fiddle, Andy Gibson of Hank Williams III’s Damn Band contributes on steel guitar, and Ronnie McCoury shines when his mandolin is called upon. Fellow underground country traditionalist Kenneth Brian lends his vocal and guitar chops, and some guy who sounds eerily similar to Hank Williams III, credited in the liner notes as “Dixie Coon,” sings with Beverley on a couple songs. Old-timey with an edge, Dark Bar and a Jukebox is a musical pleasure.
Despite Music Row’s attempt to bury it, this 13-song effort by JB Beverley and the Wayward Drifters shows that real country music is very much alive. While all of these songs like they could have been written in the 1930s-1950s, the band gives them a modern, heavy edge, making them accessible to fans of old school country and punk rock alike. 2006 has been a very strong year for traditional country music releases with several more still scheduled, but Dark Bar and a Jukebox ranks right up there with the year’s best. Go ahead and get on the train. The Wayward Drifters send you on a hell of a ride!