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(Sugar Hill 1083 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/4/2005)
It's remarkable how many worthy singer-songwriters there are on the scene with careers going back decades, and who have never exactly achieved fame and fortune, but who remain active and widely respected by their peers. People like John Hiatt, Guy Clark, Joe Ely, and Delbert McClinton have continued to do great work, as well as having their songs recorded by others. Another gentleman who epitomizes the veteran roots-rock singer-songwriter is Greg Trooper, who has just released his eighth album called Make It Through This World.
A native of New Jersey, Trooper began to emerge as a songwriter in college in Kansas, then spent time living in Austin, Texas, and New York before moving to Nashville in the early 1990s, where it seems that every other resident is a songwriter. Trooper's recording career goes back to the mid-1980s, and over the years, his songs have been recorded by Steve Earle, Roseanne Cash and Vince Gill among others, though he never really set out to be a Nashville-style writer. His main direction has been folk and roots rock, as reflected on his albums which tended vary in sound from one to the next, mainly because each of his records ended up being on a different label. Now he is out with a rare second recording for the same company, Sugar Hill Records, known for their bluegrass, though also the home of roots singer-songwriters like James McMurtry.
Fifty-year-old Greg Trooper says his personal Holy Trinity of music is Otis Redding, Hank Williams and Bob Dylan, and for this CD the Otis Redding aspect comes to the fore, with the CD recorded by veteran soul producer and engineer Dan Penn, whose past clients have included Solomon Burke, Irma Thomas and The Box Tops. Penn, working in his own studio with vintage instruments and recording equipment, did not exactly turn this into a soul record, but added the kind of easy-going Memphis groove, with a touch of country in the form of splashes of steel guitar and Dobro. Trooper also noted that Penn asked him why didn't he sit down and relax while singing, instead of standing as most artists do to get the requisite lung power in the recording studio. That small touch of singing while seated seemed to put the whole album into a relaxed groove, while Trooper serves up some of his best songs, many of them little narratives, sung in unambiguous language but filled with great turns of phrase and clever points of view. The result is a first-rate album that feels like a comfortable old slipper musically, and lyrically has a lot going for it, casting some new light on often-familiar songwriting topics.
Trooper is joined by a fine band including New Orleans drummer Kenneth Blevins, known for his work with John Hiatt and Sonny Landreth; bassist Dave Jacques from John Prine's band, Kevin McKendree, borrowed from Delbert McClinton's band, on the vintage keyboards, and Bill Kirchner on the electric guitar. Steve Fishell plays the steel guitar and Dobro, to add a little country influence. That makes an interesting mix with the old Wurlitzer piano and Hammond B-3 organ sounds that are straight out of Memphis soul. All the players are first rate, and perform with a lot of class and subtlety, providing just the right backdrop for Trooper's sincere, slightly weathered voice, that fit his songs perfectly.
The CD gets under way with Dream Away These Blues which personifies the great stylistic mix of Memphis soul and roots rock, with a little Gospel thrown in. Lyrically, the track is also in keeping with the generally optimistic tone of the CD. <<>>
One of the gems on Make It Through This World is Green Eyed Girl, with a great easy-going soul-country mix. The introspective lyrics have a distinctly folky direction, hinting at traditional songs. <<>>
The country side is emphasized on the song Don't Let It Go to Waste, whose lyrics are directed to a woman named Alice, with whom the protagonist has an uncertain relationship. <<>>
Along the same lines lyrically, but with the soul sound predominating, is Lonely Pair, revolving around two people on the edge of breaking up. It's one of several songs on the CD that would be good candidates for covers by better-known artists, as has happened with several of Trooper's songs. <<>>
My pick for instant classic is I Love It When She Lies. The song's premise on the effect of infatuation is wonderfully clever. The kind of soul-country accompaniment shows that the song could find a home as a hit in either classic soul or country. <<>>
The one song that strays away from the familiar topic of relationships is No Higher Ground, about a hurricane and flood in Galveston, Texas, presumably the same storm that inspired the classic 1960s folksong Wasn't That a Mighty Storm. <<>>
In contrast to that is the celebratory When I Think of You My Friends, which also again cleverly combines Memphis soul with a little country twang. <<>>
The CD ends with another of its highlights, Lonesome for You Now. It's a bittersweet tale of a successful but lonely man, and one of the best performances by all on the album. <<>>
With Make It Through This World, veteran singer-songwriter Greg Trooper has made probably the best album in his nearly 20 year recording career. Working with seminal soul producer Dan Penn, Trooper and his excellent band, create a great mix of Memphis soul and bits of country and roots rock. Trooper has created a great batch of new songs, and the performances along with the arrangements and general laid-back but soulful feel, make this album one that's full of instant classics.
For our sound quality grade, we'll give the CD an "A." The recording a little airier and more open than typical for this kind of music, and the vintage equipment employed, including an old Ampex 16-track tape machine, work well and give the CD a clean, warm sound.
There are a lot of fine new singer-songwriters emerging on the scene, but it's also great to hear excellent new work from long-time musical stalwarts, especially such unsung heroes as Greg Trooper. While this CD is too classy to have much chance of platinum sales in the current commercial media environment, nevertheless, Make It Through This World has the potential of introducing new audiences to this fine artist.
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