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(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

It’s easy to dismiss Hank Williams Jr. as a reactionary clown due to the conservative canards he long ago embraced, and a wide swath of America has done just that. At best, in their eyes, he’s the cartoonish buffoon who sings the Monday Night Football theme. At worst, they don’t think of him at all. Hank Who?

Which is a shame. From the landmark Hank Williams Jr. & Friends LP in 1975, when he embraced the outlaw ethos, through his last truly great album, Lone Wolf in 1990, he released a string of solid-to-stellar studio albums along with a truly stupendous live set, 1987’s Hank Live, and not one, not two, but three best-of collections. He was, as he brags in the live version of “My Name Is Bocephus,” the “platinum boy that does the rock ’n’ roll-country-blues.”

Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound, released in November 1979, rates among his greatest works. Remember that the Iranian Revolution early in the year caused the price of oil to soar, which upended the economy as a whole. Auto sales plummeted, and inflation – which had been a scourge on working people for most of the decade – ratcheted past 10 percent. It was, for many, a bleak time.

As a result, as a whole, the album’s mostly downbeat. The title tune, for instance, tells of a life on the road, and the guilt that comes from a booze-fueled attempt to remedy loneliness. Like many a country song, in other words, it’s about cheating. The woozy rhythm accentuates the lyrics, which find the narrator begging for certain jukebox standards – including one by Hank Sr. – not to be played, lest he be reminded of his failing.

“Tired of Being Johnny B. Good,” the second track, reflects the era’s anger to a T. (In some ways, to share an observation from my wife, it’s a Tea Party anthem from a pre-Tea Party time. I’d only say that the lyrics are actually democratic – note the lower-case “d.”)

“Outlaw Women”…well, what can be said about this other than it’s a classic? Here’s a great version from 2004, with Hank joined by Gretchen Wilson.

Another high point: Hank’s bluesy take on the Allman Brothers’ “Come and Go Blues.”

The album ends with Hank Jr. and Waylon Jennings joining forces for “The Conversation,” in which they trade stories about Hank’s famous dad. Here’s the two of them from sometimes in the early ‘80s…

Say what you will about Hank’s politics (which are pretty much diametrically opposite of mine), but don’t let his outspoken stances get in the way of what is a damn good set of songs. Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound is one of the touchstone albums in my life, in fact. It’s outlaw country at its best.

Side One:

  1. Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound
  2. Tired of Being Johnny B. Good
  3. Outlaw Women
  4. (I Don’t Have) Anymore Love Songs
  5. White Lightnin’

Side Two:

  1. Women I’ve Never Had
  2. O.D.’d in Denver
  3. Come and Go Blues
  4. Old Nashville Cowboy
  5. The Conversation

Freakin’ phenomenal. That, in a nutshell, sums up the latest single from Rylie Bourne. It conjures the outlaw country ethos of yore, with a taut rhythm, stinging guitar, and confessional lyrics that are equal parts self-reflection and self-recrimination. “You think you know who I am/but I know who I’ve been/and I don’t see that changing anyhow/I haven’t walked the line/not the way I’m supposed to/I’ve been so unkind/to ones that I am close to…”

And, of course, there’s that voice. It engulfs the soul.

In an interview with Music Central Update, Rylie explains that the song’s inspiration was a past relationship. “I was in a situation in which I could feel myself changing as a person, and not for the good. We were both unhappy and I was doing and saying things that I wouldn’t normally. I no longer felt true to myself.” (It’s an interview well worth reading, so check it out.)

To my ears, the song sounds like a lost track from Hank Williams Jr.’s Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound or The Pressure Is On. In fact, and perhaps it’s due to me listening to the tune on repeat during my morning commutes this week, but “Untrue” brought me back to a specific sonic odyssey from my own bygone outlaw days, aka the mid-‘80s. When heading home from the Penn State mothership in Happy Valley, I often ferried passengers, who paid for gas and the tolls. On this day in question, it was myself, my roommate, and two freshmen. As we pulled out of the dorm’s parking lot, I asked them, “so what kind of music do y’all like?” 

“Anything but country,” came the reply from one. The other agreed.

My roommate chuckled. He knew what was coming, if only from the glint in my eye. And, with that, I pushed a cassette into the tape deck, and the woozy title track to Hank Jr.’s Whiskey Bent staggered from the speakers. Some tapes were albums in full, but at least one was a mix – not all outlaw, but it was all country and country-flavored – Lone Justice, Flying Burrito Brothers, Jason & the Scorchers, possibly Dwight Yoakam.

“Untrue” would have fit right in. It’s traditional, rebellious, country and rock. It smokes.

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

As I write, it’s a gray, damp May morning in the Delaware Valley. And while the Earth’s revolutions around the sun push us, ever-so-slowly, into a soggy afternoon, I’m spinning back into the past – to one of my favorite years, 1985.

On the very first day of the first post-Orwellian year, a new channel named VH1 debuted on many cable systems across the nation, including mine. Its name was short for Video Hits One, and it aired music videos. And only music videos. But unlike its sibling channel MTV, its focus was less on the hot pop and rock hits of the day, and more on adult fare. Like jazz, soul, adult contemporary and even some country.

College, work, and life kept me busy. I was 19, attending the commuter-college paradise that was Penn State Ogontz (now Penn State Abington), and working as many hours as possible as a sales associate at a department store at the Willow Grove Mall. What free time I had was mostly music-centered – LPs, stereo, headphones, music magazines. But one day that late spring or summer, and I can’t remember when, I clicked onto VH1 – and was greeted by this video:

I bought the corresponding LP, Rhythm & Romance, not long thereafter, on July 17th, and was instantly smitten with the album as a whole. It marries the SoCal rock aesthetic, updated for the ‘80s, with a country heart. The opening track, “Hold On,” features a taut guitar solo. 

The third song was a Benmont Tench-Tom Petty song, “Never Be You,” that Maria McKee first sang on the Streets of Fire soundtrack the year before…though I didn’t learn that for quite some time. (This was pre-Internet, remember. Not all factoids were a mouse click away.) 

Other highlights include “Second to No One.” I never saw the video before now, and must say that it’s quite stunning.

Also: “Halfway House,” which include these truly insightful lyrics: “We’re all in the halfway house/Or so it sometimes seems/Trying to find the truth inside/Instead of getting by on dreams.”

“Never Gonna Hurt,” another favorite, is as spiky as Rosanne’s hair on the cover – it sounds like a lost Jam classic.

Actually – see the track list below? Those are the highlights. All 10 songs. Rhythm & Romance is one of those albums best listened to from start to finish.

A few years back, Rolling Stone published an excellent salute to the album in honor of its 30th anniversary. It included this surprising bon mot from Rosanne’s memoir, Composed: “I still cannot stand to listen to Rhythm & Romance,” especially the “sophomoric, navel-gazing songs.” It just goes to show that, sometimes, the artist is wrong. To my ears, Rhythm & Romance is a classic.

In the year since it was released, of course, Rosanne has released a string of good, great and equally essential albums; and Diane and I have seen her in concert many times. But whenever I hear or think of her, I can’t help but to think of this album.

Side One:

  1. Hold On
  2. I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me
  3. Never Be You
  4. Second to No One
  5. Halfway House

Side Two:

  1. Pink Bedroom
  2. Never Alone
  3. My Old Man
  4. Never Gonna Hurt
  5. Closing Time

I’ve taken the turnpike, a toll road, every work day for the past 18 years, save for those occasions when I work from home, but I don’t have – nor do I want – E-ZPass. For those readers who aren’t from one of the 16 states that offer it, it’s basically an automated toll taker. You place a transponder on your windshield, pay into an account online, and then, when you drive through the correct entry or exit lane, the payment is instant. There’s no muss or fuss, and – theoretically speaking – no backed-up lines of cars at the toll plaza. (In practice, however, at least for the times I enter and exit, the E-ZPass lanes are often backed up even more than the cash lanes.) Pennsylvania, my state, also offers a discount vs. the cash option.

In other words, I generally see the same faces collecting tolls, and often trade quick talk about the weather, traffic and other stuff. “Hey buddy.” “There he is.” “How you doing?” “See you tomorrow.” “Have a great day.” “How ‘bout them Eagles?” Or, sometimes, “You’re later than usual.” I always thank them, and bid them a good day or night. It’s routine. It’s nice.

There’s a larger point I could make about the downside of automation, but that’s for another day. Rather, I’m sharing my toll booth tales for no other reason than this: More often than not, music – though not too loud, as I always turn it down – engulfs the background of those short conversations. And yesterday morning, one of those same faces commented, “You’re always listening to something good. Who is that?”

Which leads to today’s Top 5: Toll Booth Tales (aka What I Listened to This Week)

1) Erin O’Dowd – “Wewoka.” The answer to the question the toll booth collector asked is Erin O’Dowd, whose Old Town has received many plays from me this week. My hopes were high when, just about this time last year, I pledged for it on her Kickstarter page. I suspected it would be good. But this good?! After a week of listening, I can safely say that everything I wrote in my First Impressions of it is an understatement. It’s one of my favorite albums of the year, thus far.

 2) Belly – “Shiny One.” Back in 1993, I fell under the spell of Star, the Rhode Island band’s debut album, and played it the only way I know how – again and again, and again after that. “Feed the Tree” was, and remains, freakin’ awesome – one of the greatest songs of the era. I’d love to say that I also played their 1995 follow-up, King, in the same fashion, but can’t – my main memory of it is one of disappointment. Anyway, leap forward to the present, and I can say without equivocation that the reformed Belly’s third studio offering, Dove, is a keeper. (Highway Queens has a great review of it.) Also, just as an aside, this song – the lead single – seemingly channels one of the great under-appreciated bands of the 1980s, Opal.

3) Mazzy Star – “Quiet, the Winter Harbor.” And speaking of Opal, there’s this, the lead single from the forthcoming Still EP from Opal’s successor, Mazzy Star, which I have on pre-order from Amazon. It’s the kind of dreamy song that takes you places. 

4) Courtney Marie Andrews – “Warning Sign.” One of my big regrets of recent vintage is not recording this killer song when Diane and I saw Courtney Marie & Band perform it in Philly. It collects and reflects a myriad of influences, so much so that you’ll swear you heard it buried somewhere on either the Complete Stax/Volt Singles or Beg, Scream & Shout: The Big Ol’ Box of ‘60s Soul mega-sets. And with that…here she is delivering a stirring rendition of it in Liverpool last month. (The video’s only negative: Dillon’s guitar gymnastics take place off screen.)

5) Juliana Hatfield – “Suspended in Time.” Juliana performs this Xanadu song, from her insta-classic Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John album, just last week in Somerville, Mass. (She’s not touring at present, which is both a shame and understandable.)