Artist: Karen Collins and the Backroads Band
Album: Tail Light Blues
Sounds Like: Tammy Wynette, Sun Records acts
Production/Musicianship Grade: 10/10
Overall Talent Level: 10/10
Songwriting Skills: 9/10
Performance Skill: 10/10
Best Songs: Only Mama That'll Walk the Line, Highway of Love, Rumors
This disc transports me back in time to my reluctant introduction to country music in the early 1970s. My dad had a stack of country vinyl, and he was unafraid to sing loudly along. But over the years, my embarrassment at Dad gave way to great appreciation of traditional country music.
For the country fan, Tail Light Blues is a cut above even what is called roots music these days. Karen Collins is an authentic country voice in the style of Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, and her band can rock like Sun Records, with virtuoso picker Ira Gitlin nailing notes all over the place.
Like so many tracks on this album, the opening “Honky Tonk Guitar” is spry, fun and clever. Buddy Charleton’s jubilant pedal steel adds to the song’s air of happy freedom. “Highway of Love” chugs along on the strength of Gitlin’s plucky banjo and unique rockabilly guitar. On these tracks and several others, Collins shows a knack for metaphor and imagery in her lyrics.
“Song Gone Wrong” reminds me of Maria McKee’s Lone Justice days. Like McKee, Collins’ voice is authentically, richly country. Later, “Only Mama That’ll Walk the Line” rocks assertively like a song from Lone Justice’s first album back in the early ‘80s.
After “Song Gone Wrong,” the band speeds right back up again with “Hurricane,” a song that I connect with as a Floridian. Collins’ vocal has a smile to it, and the conversation between Matt Levine’s dobro and Gitlin’s guitar is a treat. Bassist Geff King then weighs in with “Forgive My heart for Breaking,” a song whose bounciness belies its heartache. On Gitlin’s instrumental “Half Moon Shuffle,” his picking is so twangy that it’s darn close to surf style, and Collins takes a turn on fiddle – she should do that more often.
My grandfather taught me “Sentimental Journey” on piano, so I’ve always had fond memories of this one. The Backroads Band’s version is smooth and jazzy, with a countrified-Andrews-Sisters feel. In fact, the harmony vocals throughout the album deserve mention: the rollicking “Feudin’ and Fightin’” is another good example.
The zydeco stomp “Heart Attack” is a nifty sawdust-on-the-floor dance number, and it’s followed by the good ol’ ballad “Rumors.” I dig the way that on “Rumors” Collins draws out “circlin’” into a five-syllable word, and Gitlin contributes a pretty acoustic solo.
Tail Light Blues closes with the title cut, the first song Karen ever wrote. It’s fitting, with a Jimmie Rodgers feel that is a final nod to the classic country from which this wonderful album draws its strength.