As my friend Bobbie “The Babe” Barajas used to tell me, “Texas is its own world. Texans understand this, others don’t.” I think she was on to something, but being from a small town on a mountain never prepared me for the first dozen or so times that I went through Texas.
I used to play a comedy club in Houston, and one in Dallas, and always wanted to make a pilgrimage to Lubbock to see friends and pay homage to the late great Buddy Holly but never made it there.
The reality is, Texas may be several different worlds – flat plains with dust storms, big gleaming cities, amazing beaches, major universities, and some of the most amazing music you could ever hope to find. I loved Texas when I was travelling. Had some great times there and made more than a few friends.
Texas even has its own genre of Blues, called surprisingly enough, Texas Blues. It’s got more of a swing than Chicago Blues and has a different approach than West Coast Blues. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but once you hear it, you never forget it.
Texas has even produced its share of great blues artists. People like: Doyle Bramhall, Gary Clark, Jr., W. C. Clark, Albert Collins, Darrell Nulisch (who is being featured on an upcoming Time For The Blues), Chris Duarte, Billy Gibbons, the legendary Lightnin' Hopkins and T-Bone Walker, Joe "Guitar" Hughes, the raucous Long John Hunter, two of the great “Blind” artists - Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie Johnson , great legends like Janis Joplin, Freddie King, and Mance Lipscomb, one of my favorites Angela Strehli, the brothers Vaughan – Jimmy and Stevie Ray and don’t forget groups like The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Omar & The Howlers.
If that is not the most serious run-on sentence in the history of mankind, I don’t know what is…
Anyway, another name that needs to be added to that list is Randy McAllister, who has recorded a whole bunch of acclaimed albums that are not in my collection – yet. After hearing his latest, GRISTLE TO GOLD, I can’t wait to hear what else he has to say.
McAllister is the son of Texas-born drummer who has deftly followed in his father’s footsteps while carving out his own niche. Aside from playing the drums, McAllister is a world class harp player, having picked up the instrument while he was serving in the US Air Force. He was stationed in Boston and he learned from playing the blues clubs in the area.
All the while he was writing songs and quickly developed his raw style which led to recording contracts and a 2002 Grammy nomination. His band, The Scrappiest Band in the Motherland, handles a variety of musical styles while still driving hard from beginning to end. The band is mainly comprised of McAllister on vocals and harp and Rob Dewan on guitar. Matt Higgins plays bass on most of the tracks but Mike Morgan and Rich Stanmyre fill in on a few tracks. All of the 12 songs on the album are written by McAllister.
Drum duties are shared by Kevin Shermerhorn, Sean McUrley, and Eric Smith. Other guests include Maya Van Nuys on fiddle, Carson Wagner on piano and organ, Benita Arterberry and Andrea Wallace provide backing vocals, and Steve Howard and Jeff Robbins play trumpet and sax respectively.
The album starts out with a driving number, The Kid With The Really Old Soul, which sets everything up nicely. Both McAllister’s harp and Dewan’s guitar soar and the song strikes a chord – those kids we all meet that seem to know things beyond their years. It’s got that swinging beat that gets you off that seat and onto the dance floor (that is, if you’re lucky enough to catch ‘em live) and makes you move wherever you are.
The driving continues with the next song, The Push. But McAllister and company quickly shift tempos and catch you slightly off guard. Andrea Wallace leads us into Something That Don’t Cast A Dime, and McAllister’s lyrics take us into a bouncy little number. Dewan’s guitar trades off leads with the harp and you can almost see the fun the band is having putting this one together.
Then comes a title that kind of stops you in your tracks, Crappy Food, No Sleep, A Van and a Bunch Of Songs. This is the song that just about every traveling musician can relate. This reminds me of the life I used to lead when I was slinging jokes in just about every club in America, and loving it and hating it at the same time. This is a great boogie style number.
McAllister and company then slow things down with a nice ballad, I’m Like A Boomerang, a love story of a man that keeps coming back to his baby. No matter if it’s not right, you just can’t fight the attraction. They follow up with a driving number, You Lit The Dynamite, and we’ve all had things that just blow up in our face – and this one should remind us that we are the ones who lit that dynamite. Very clever lyrics.
So we’re at the halfway point of the album and it’s obvious that McAllister has a way of writing great lyrics and putting together great songs. His core group is very tight and I get the feeling that seeing them live would be a real treat. His vocals are good and his harp soars as it punctuates most of the songs. Dewan is a strong guitarist who adds a nice pyrotechnic touch when called for. I’m enjoying his background vocalists, loving their voices actually and can’t wait to hear more.
Next up, McAllister slows things down nicely to bare his soul with Someone’s Been There. This song is stripped down to its barest essentials. This is the way to grab the attention, start off softly and it forces us to become a part of the song. Carson Wagner’s piano is outstanding in this song as it captures that late night lonely feel perfectly. It’s also assuring that we’re not really alone – others have been there too and understand the pain. I love this song.
He picks up the funk with Bowling Pin, a hard driving number that has more to do with still standing when we should be knocked down. Then they slow things down again with Glass Half Full, a curiously optimistic look at how our life can be when the right person is around to share it with us. Usually with the Blues our glass is half empty and this is a nice twist to view it another way.
A Whole Lot Of Nothing is another song that is up tempo and reflects what our lives can seem like when things just aren’t going our way. Putting the song right behind Glass Half Full is an interesting choice and reminds me that our lives go in cycles of happiness and despair. It’s two sides of the same coin.
The album ends up with Hey Hooker and Ninja Bout Cha. I venture to guess that it may be the first time the word “Ninja” appears in the title of a blues song. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so. Hey Hooker is a nice little boogie number with good piano and percussion leading the song and the harp adding some nice spice. Ninja Bout Cha has a cool backbeat and McAllister’s lyrics are fun.
GRISTLE TO GOLD is a great addition to anyone’s library and believe me, I’m heading to my favorite Record Store to start looking for them. Meanwhile, if you want to find out more about Randy McAllister, check out his website at http://www.randymcallister.com and remember, Don’t Mess With Texas…