(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Two new recordings that I can’t hear enough of right now may seem totally dissimilar, but there may be more similarities than one might think.
The ageless, mighty soul singer Solomon Burke has done many country songs in the past, but he finally came to Nashville to record a country album. He cut it in Buddy Miller’s East Nashville home studio, with Miller producing and playing guitar, and the result is fascinating. And two young Texans, the McKay Brothers, have recorded a second CD that has considerable impact. And both albums are all about feeling. So that’s what I’m playing right now.
I’ve been listening to Burke for a long time. He’s an artist who is truly larger than life, with sidelines of running a chain of mortuaries, being a bishop in the House of God for All People and being the father of 21 children. He often performs sitting on a throne. But, I will tell you, he shouts and croons the musical truth of life’s verities. He first recorded country in the 1960s with such songs as “Just Out of Reach” and “Down in the Valley” and he gets it. He understands country music.
His new CD, Nashville, is the very essence of soul country. On duets with Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin and Gillian Welch, Burke sounds fully energized — as any man should be by that lineup of female partners. He is in wonderfully good voice, and the man takes control of these songs. Solomon Burke sounds fully at home in Nashville.
Listening to Burke vamp and roll with the Nashville pickers — as on “Honey Where’s the Money Gone” — is a real aural pleasure. His obvious relish in digging into Don Williams’ “Atta Way to Go” makes the song into the full-blown and gritty tragedy it was meant to be. And hearing a string section and a Hammond B-3 organ come in to support him on a strong ballad, “Up to the Mountain” with Patty Griffin’s vocals, is both gritty and lovely. His duet with Emmylou Harris on the 1973 No. 1 hit “We’re Gonna Hold On” offers a solid soul alternative to the original George Jones-Tammy Wynette version. They’re equally good in different ways.
As for the McKay Brothers, I was introduced to their music by Guy Clark, who played me some of their stuff a few weeks ago. I must say that there is probably no higher recommendation than Guy Clark’s suggestion to listen to some music. And he’s right. There’s something special here.
The McKays are all about capturing the elusive essence of Texas, which is something Clark has chased and often caught throughout his career. And it’s something that a few other artists have done, too, such as Willie and Waylon and Bob Wills and Jerry Jeff Walker and Joe Ely and Terry Allen and Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Delbert McClinton, and — come to think of it — Doug Sahm, Freddy Fender, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, T-Bone Walker, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Freddie King and two or three or 11 others. A very elite group.
And it is. But the McKays hold their own as a group with something to say and their own musical way to say it.
Hollin and Noel McKay, from Bandera, in Texas’ Hill Country, weigh in with some very arid Texas music that strikes me as very honest.
“The Disappearing Texas” is a song that will appeal to loyal Texans and especially to expat Texans such as me who cherish the Texas I always knew and treasured and now see vanishing. And the McKays obviously see it disappearing, as they sing, “There’s a disappearing Texas/Vanishing but not completely gone/Yeah, there’s a disappearing Texas/So let’s leave what there is left of it alone.”
That’s from their new CD Cold Beer & Hot Tamales. It’s their second release and was produced by Texas steel player and producer Lloyd Maines. Their self-titled debut album was produced by Gurf Morlix.
They write their own stuff, and I can see why Clark likes them, because they share his wry humor and his vision of Texas as a self-contained and flawed but lovely world. On their two albums, the McKays range all over the real and the imagined Texas, including “Mi San Antonio,” “The South Coast of Texas,” “Bandera Style,” “Port Artúr,” “Texas Heart, Mexican Soul,” “When I Reached the Colorado” and “Las Olas.”
As long as there are faithful souls like Guy Clark and the McKay Brothers, Texas will always populate a vivid musical world. And as long as there are Solomon Burkes in the world, country music will keep its soul.