After their excellent previous CDs, Swinging Broadway (2003) and Thanks a Lot (2004), John England & The Western Swingers just released a new album, Open That Gate (Lickety Split Records 2008), one of the freshest, most engaging records to come out of present-day Nashville.
If we were to compare this new album by John England & The Western Swingers to the previous two, there are two elements that call our attention. On the one hand, the band sounds a great deal more experienced, and their sound is much more polished and mature. On the other hand, the band members have definitely grown as songwriters. In fact, the CD only includes three covers; the rest are songs penned by the Western Swingers, especially by John England (gtr, vcl), Gene "Pappy" Merritts (fdl, vcl), Neil Stretcher (pno, vcl), and Tommy Hannum (st-gtr, vcl). Only David Spicher (b, vcl) and Walter Hartman (dms) do not contribute any originals, although Spicher sings and acts as leader on two of the tracks, while Hartman does a fantastic job on drums, always making the band swing at the right pace. Moreover, a great deal of care has been taken with the packaging of the album, which makes for a very attractive product.
John England, whose western swing band appears every Monday night at Robert's Western World, on Nashville's Lower Broadway, describes his music as "lively and happy," two adjectives that are absolutely necessary when it comes to western swing. From its inception in the early-1930s, western swing has been mainly a dance-oriented mixture of country, jazz, blues, and pop -- good-time music meant for dancing and foot stomping, seasoned with hot solos and Bob Wills' trademark a-ha hollers. A western swing band cannot be a true western swing band if the musicians are not enjoying the music that they are playing. And John England and The Western Swingers are the perfect contemporary example of this -- an outfit made out of excellent musicians who have fun on stage and make the audience have a blast as well. Open That Gate is an album that epitomizes this idea.
The CD opens with a brief drum solo by Hartman that introduces "Open That Gate," a John England original written in the vein of classics such as "Oh Monah" and "Sleepy-Eyed John." It is an enjoyable little tune, highlighted by a call-and-response scheme that is to be found in many unforgettable recordings by Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys and countless other legendary western swing combos. This first track lends its title to the album and exemplifies the kind of music that the Western Swingers have envisioned for this record as a whole: contemporary western swing that shows a profound respect for and knowledge of the roots of the genre. As England states, "the songs are so well written that most listeners can't distinguish the standards from the originals", and this is undoubtedly an asset of an album that is full of tunes that are directly inspired by the classic western swing sounds that shape the repertoire of the band.
Open That Gate showcases the songwriting abilities of the Western Swingers, as well as their versatility as pickers and vocalists. England is the author of two outstanding instrumentals, "Neely's Bend Quick Step" and "Big Boy Strut," which betray his love of classic jazz, an inescapable influence of good-quality western swing. "Right There With Me," also written by England, features some clever lyrics and a very catchy tune, something that it has in common with "The Closer I Get," which England wrote with Tommy Hannum, the steel guitarist in the band. Hannum, whose playing can be heard on records by Tammy Wynette, Steve Earle, and Mary Chapin Carpenter, offers ample proof of his great talent as a songwriter with two very different tunes. "Old Town" oozes with class and his highlighted by a very soft, swinging rhythm; "She's Comin' Home With Me" is a fine honky-tonk composition, with a very intelligent, playful lyric in which Hannum fits the names of legendary singers such as Ernest Tubb, Mel Tillis, and Ray Price.
Ray Price might actually be the reference for pianist Neil Stretcher's classy "One More Time," a lovely ballad that harks back to the best ballads of the great honky-tonker from Texas. The Stretcher-penned "Brownsville" is a wonderful shuffle embellished by a magnificent blend of fiddle and steel guitar. Bassist David Spicher gives his own personal touch to two classic songs that mix western swing and old-time jazz. First, he offers a rollicking reading of the oft-recorded "Bring It On Down," mostly associated with Bob Wills. The CD is brought to a close with Spicher's version of "Yes, Sir," a tune by Andy Razaf, co-writer of countless Fats Waller numbers.
But the veteran fiddler Gene "Pappy" Merritts, who has collaborated with country greats by the likes of Bill Monroe and Benny Martin, is the author of one of the most compelling tracks in the album, a delightful waltz entitled "Waltz for Sue Ann" and dedicated to his wife. Originally devised as an instrumental, "Pappy" finally got around to writing a beautiful set of lyrics for the tune, and on the recorded version, his voice shows all the wisdom and authenticity of a man who has devoted his whole life to country music. His version of the Floyd Tillman classic "I'll Keep On Loving You" is another treat for the listener.
In short, Open That Gate is an almost unique album in the present-day Nashville scene, which is usually dominated by highly commercial, unexciting country pop. On their new CD, John England & The Western Swingers capture on record the sheer fun and dynamism of their live act. The album clocks in at around forty minutes, and it is the perfect proof that in spite of all the decades that have gone by, there are certain things that never change. And the heel-kicking, foot-stomping, all-around fun sound of western swing is still very much alive.
Cowboy Antón García
Nashville, July 2008.