- The Highballers
- The Highballers
If you like crunch with your twang; if you think it’s a crying shame that Hank Williams Sr. never lived long enough to won a Nudie suit; if you think the ultimate gig would be Johnny Cash fronting The Bottle Rockets – or Uncle Tupelo at their cowpunkiest – then you, my friend, need to listen to The Highballers.
Let’s take that Johnny Cash thing and run with it for a moment: the third track of The Highballers’ new self-titled album is “Lula’s Gone” – and if you crank it up and close your eyes, it’s real easy to imagine …
Uncle Tupelo has just slammed their way through “The Long Cut”, a live studio take during the sessions for 1993’s Anodyne. There’s no denying the tension between frontmen Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar; it would be strong enough to blow the band apart in a few more months but for now, it’s enough to fuel the blistering churn they’ve just laid to tape. There’s heat shimmering off the amps and tube stink in the air when the studio door opens – and in strides Johnny Cash and his wife, June Carter. The band is stunned by the appearance of two of their heroes; Cash smiles and nods like they’re all old pals.
“Boys,” he says, “that was a fine, fine tune. What was the name of that?”
“‘The L-l-l-ong Cut’” says Tweedy, his voice having gone from rocker roar to a 13-year-old’s squeak in the presence of royalty.
“That’s a hot one, ain’t it?” says Cash, as he takes an acoustic guitar out of the case he lugged in. “Could you boys do me a favor? June’s got a tune here that I think could use that kind of spunk – it goes kinda like this …” And he plays a couple of verses as June sings, joining her on the choruses. The members of Uncle Tupelo are still somewhat dazed, but they’re taking in every chord change.
Cash pauses in his strumming. “Now what I’d like to try is having you boys play this tune with the same kinda spirit you played that ‘Long Cut’ song with, alright? Wail on them guitars and drive that rhythm – and me an’ June will see if we can keep up. Okay?”
There’s a heartbeat of silence … and then another … and then Tweedy and Farrar sort of shake themselves and say “Okay” in unison. They turn to face drummer Ken Coomer and Farrar counts off: “One … two … one two three four!”
And it’s easy to believe that what followed would sound just like “Lula’s Gone” on the new Highballers album: except that’s Victoria Patchen on lead vocals with Kendall Jackson singing harmony behind her and grinding out the rhythm while Sean Lally pulls off all those wailing bends and double-stop riffs – and drummer Drake Sorey and bassist Mike Barrientos thrash and womp beneath it all, giving the beast not only a backbone but teeth and claws as well. (And just to clarify the preceding fantasy sequence: Jackson wrote “Lula’s Gone” – he wrote or co-wrote all but one of the album’s 10 cuts.)
Ladies and gentlemen, meet The Highballers: purveyors of twangdream fantasies, delivering the sounds of alt-country summits that never happened.
Oh, what fun. The Washington, DC-based quintet’s sophomore album is full of vibes that might feel familiar, but are never predictable. For instance, when Jackson sings:
Daddy carried a pistol
Strapped right by his side
on the opener “Fire and Smoke” you know – you just know – that the next phrase is gonna end with the word “died” … and it does. But what keeps this from being your run-of-the-mill tough-run-of-luck twanger is the churn of the guitars (there’s never really what you’d call a bust-loose solo – just a whole lot of tastiness); the weaving of Jackson and Patchen’s voices (too real to be called polished, but beautiful just the same); and the punkish attitude of the bass and drums, laying on a tension that won’t let go.
Or consider “Love Will Find You”, which could have just as easily lived its life as a dandy little acoustic number: The Highballers tick it along at an easy, friendly lope. At the 2:44 mark Lally lets loose with a lovely string-popping break on the Tele, the likes of which haven’t been heard since Brian Henneman broke everybody’s hearts on Wilco’s “It’s Just That Simple” from A.M.
The narrator of “I Need My Ass Kicked” is a dickhead, but there’s something about the sheer joy of the picking breaks and the slam-bang rhythm that prevents you from despising the guy. (Or maybe it’s drummer Sorey’s primal screams on the choruses.) Patchen leads the band through “I’ll Break More Than Just Your Heart”, pulling off the cool feat of doling out a Lucinda Williams-style threat without ever raising her voice. (It’s almost scary – and the band snarling and rumbling and lurching behind her keeps the heat turned up.)
Ol’ George Jones would’ve loved “Can’t Stop Drinkin’” (featuring Lally handing it off to guest pedal steeler Bobby Birdsong and some just-right harp work by Jackson Edwards); a little bit of Farfisa organ and lines like “She was a barefoot hippie, fightin’ with her old man” in “One Damn Thing” conjure up memories of the late, great Doug Sahm; and the colliding-worlds ballad “King Of The Plains” contains the great line, “Get out of that spaceship – fight like a man!” Now you tell me: where else are you going to find entertainment like that?
There’s oftentimes a leetle bit of a grin handy at any given moment in a Highballers tune, but make no mistake about it: these folks came to play. The ten songs on The Highballers span the gamut of human emotions (is drunk an emotion?) and will keep your knee a’jigglin’ the whole time.
You can’t ask for any more than that, my friend.
Brian Robbins waits for Johnny and June to show up over at www.brian-robbins.com