Mr Honky Tonk
What makes a great outlaw country record? It’s highly subjective, of course. There are certain tropes that signpost an outlaw country tune; tales of the late nights and the road, hard drinking, whiskey and women, honky tonks and musical heroes are all reasons we love to listen to this music, great stories of love, loss and excess told with a wry sense of humour and lyrical inventiveness that is seldom found elsewhere. All of these elements are important, but it is not a simple matter of ticking off a list. You can have all these factors in place and still be missing something. The voice, of course, is vital, but so is the attitude, the way the material is approached, not only by the singer, but buy the rest of the band and, importantly, the producer. For all these elements to align perfectly, in a way that suits your own personal, subjective taste, it a wonderful thing. Should any one of them be even slightly off mark, the overall result is diminished. Many a lovely album has been spoiled by the way it was produced, while a good album may be let down by some of the material. Not every record can be on the money from start to finish, that’s where having your own personal taste in music comes in. As someone who loves records and lives to discover music, new and old, there is nothing quite like finding an album that really takes you there, where everything has come together to generate a sum greater than its parts. Dallas Moore’s Mr Honky Tonk is one of those records.
The album opens with Home is where the Highway Is. No heartache or road-weary longing for home here, just pinning for the open road, unfettered horizons and the next gig in the next state, fresh adventures down the road. A steady kick and shimmering strum let the easy rolling chords of the B3 lead you to the lonesome harmonica and the story of a wandering minstrel ranging over the land of the free. This is classic stuff, nothing new, naturally, but played so deftly and produced with such taste that you are instantly transported by the singer and his song, letting the musical backing carry you along the road with him. It is only when you tear yourself away from Moore’s peripatetic ramblings to focus on the music that you start to realise how well recorded the song is. You’re in for a treat. The album’s title track, Mr Honky Tonk, is next up, and by now you know you’re in safe hands. This is the real deal, 21st century honky tonk that wears its heart on its sleeve, somewhere between Johnny Paycheck and Moe Bandy; “He don’t know how to two-step, but he sure can cut a rug”, this is good-time, Saturday-night bar room music with tough drums, gutsy steel lovely piano flourishes, but it’s Moore’s voice you’ll be concentrating on. Killing Me Nice and Slow rocks up proceedings, upping the outlaw quota with a tale of empty whiskey bottles and ending relationships, while You Know the Rest switches to waltz-time, bringing the harmonica in to back to Spanish guitar and ringing steel; “I went to bed in a mansion, I woke up on the floor”.
Before you know it, side one is done. Mr Honky Tonk is a short album, but that works in its favour; it’s the same trick as the three minute 7” record, give them just enough to get them hooked, to keep them coming back. Its time to flip over to side two, and we’re back on the road with Texahio, albeit at a slower pace, as Dallas recounts his tale of relocating his woman form Ohio down to the Lone Star state – “Texas, I’m gonna sing my song for you”. Somewhere Between Bridges picks up the tempo a little, kicking off with a fiddle and we’re back in bar room territory again, plenty of crying guitar licks and a fiddle lamenting the state of this relationship, “somewhere between bridges, a million miles form being lost”. Kisses From You takes us straight to the end of a relationship; “I don’t need your hand-me-down heartache, I don’t need no second-hand blues”. We’re in a world of resignation and acceptance, this is grown-up country music that knows that the pains of love and life are simply part of the journey, where the road takes you; “Freedom tastes sweet like the whiskey, but it burns like those kisses from you”. The closing track of the album, Shoot Out the Lights, ramps up the Southern rock side of Moore’s outlaw performance. Bringing in the backing singers for added Stones effect, this is pure roadhouse rock and has already become a Whiskey Preachin sure-spin, a braggadocio-piece well suited to closing out such an enjoyable ride of an album; “and I always deal in danger, I something deal in death, no I don’t mind the long white line but I can’t stand that meth”.
Moore was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, just over the river form Kentucky, half way between DC and KC. In an interview with No Depression, Moore made the point that Cincinnati has a proud history in country music, with the Herzog studios having been responsible for such landmark recordings as Hank Williams’s rendition of Lovesick Blues and I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, as well as Flatt and Scruggs’s Foggy Mountain Breakdown, known the world over from the soundtrack to Bonnie and Clyde. The Delmore Brothers's Freight Train Boogie was also recorded at Herzog Studios, helping make Cincinnati a recording center before Music Row, when Nashville was still a radio town. Getting to university on a jazz scholarship to study classical guitar, it wasn’t long before Moore was playing in country bands around the bars of Cincinnati. By 1991, Moore had released his first album, My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys, staking his claim and pronouncing his right to follow the trail of Willie, Waylon and David Allen Coe. Since then, Moore has shared the stage supporting many of the greats of outlaw country and Southern rock, including Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and later incarnations of The Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Mr Honky Tonk was recorded in Nashville, with a crack band of Music City session musicians brought together by producer Dean Miller (son of Roger), a talented song writer who worked with the great George Jones, and more recently with Jamey Johnson and Hank 3. Moore’s surprise upon walking into the studio to find such a pool of talent gathered for his session is refreshing; “ We walked in to the studio and saw all these incredible players lined up, I thought they were there to play with someone else!”. Luckily they were there to play with Dallas Moore on Mr Honky Tonk. The combination of such fine players and a talented and savvy producer worked to bring out the best in Moore’s songwriting and vocal performance, giving the album that extra something that separates a great record form all the rest. This one's staying in the record box for quite some time, believe me.