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The Last Country Album

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Album Review

A name like HeyBale suggests one of those jokey country bands, maybe put together by some younger rockers going through their "roots" phase. The reality is just the opposite. HeyBale are an ensemble of some of Austin's top musicians who serve up honky tonk tunes that sound traditional but not stodgy. The big names here are guitarist Redd Volkaert and piano man Earl Poole Ball. The Grammy-nominated Volkaert was Merle Haggard's guitarist for half a dozen years as well as being an in-demand session man and solo artist. Ball, another Haggard alum, has a résumé that also includes Johnny Cash, the Byrds, and Buck Owens. Volkaert, whose richly resonant vocal style recalls fellow guitar slinger Junior Brown, does a fine turn on the Willie Nelson weeper "Mr. Record Man." Ball contributes several timeless-sounding originals, "Livin' in a Cheap Motel," "Everything...About Drinkin'," and "Honky Tonk Mood." They all project a strong lived-in feel with the latter succinctly representing what the band and album are all about.

Despite all the veteran talent here (bassist Kevin Smith and drummer Tom Lewis also have lengthy credits to their names), the secret weapon is the least heralded member, Gary Claxton. Claxton, a 20-year club gig survivor, offers a nice vocal counterpoint to Ball and Volkaert's unvarnished singing style. Claxton's country croon has enough grit in it for the twangy road tale "Guess Where I'll Be This Morning" and the lively Tex-Mex-flavored drinking number "Let's Go to Mexico," while also containing the smoothness to pull off the '50s-style stroll "House of Secrets," a tune that recalls the Mavericks. "California Wine," his co-write with Volkaert, is an excellent portrait of a second-generation musician following — for better or worse — in his father's footsteps. Not to be overlooked here is the impressive musicianship. Volkaert's nimble guitar lines run throughout the disc, but particularly so in "Honky Tonk Mood" and "Guess Where I'll Be This Morning." Ball's piano handiwork is showcased in "House of Secrets" and "Hang Your Head in Shame," which also gets propelled by Lewis' drumbeat. Volkaert and Ball each share the solo spotlight on the Tom T. Hall classic "That's How I Got to Memphis," but tellingly neither tries to overwhelm the song by trying to show off his virtuosity. The whole band turns it out on the Western jazzy instrumental "Heybalin'," which also features some fine guest fiddling from the tune's author, Erik Hokkanen. The Last Country Album might not be the last word in country albums as its name suggests, but it does contain a sublime set of ageless yet vibrant honky tonk that undoubtedly comes close to replicating what you might hear at one of the band's steady Sunday gigs at Austin's fabled Continental Club.

The Last Country Album, Heybale
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