Jason Boland & The Stragglers Embrace Country’s Storytelling Side on ‘Hard Times Are Relative’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

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Jason Boland & The Stragglers embrace country music mostly for one of its key foundations – storytelling.  On their new release, Hard Times Are Relative, the band challenges our relationship with our past and our acceptance of the inevitability of change. This is intelligent, provocative fodder delivered with a danceable, edgy honky-tonk fervor that at times takes your focus off the lyrics as you bob and shake to the music. This year marks the band’s twentieth anniversary and tenth with the label, Thirty Tigers. It’s their 9th studio album and was co-produced by the band, David Percefull, and Adam Odor, recording live to tape as they typically do.

It’s as if one foot is in the tradition and the other foot wants to stretch the music’s boundaries as far as possible, adding psychedelia and punk to their overall sound.  The Oklahoma-based five-piece unit has frontman Boland handling vocals and guitar supported by Grant Tracy on bass, Brad Rice on drums Nick Worley on fiddle and mandolin. Cody Angel contributes to most tracks on electric and pedal steel. Various guests like Bukka Allen (accordion, B30 and Geoff Queen (banjo, guitars) appear on select tracks.

Boland & The Stragglers have a loyal, growing fan base in Texas and the surrounding states but are far from household names. That’s likely because they refuse to surrender to the predictable, fluffy pop stuff that passes as country radio these days.  In the early days, the band had party songs like “When I’m Stoned” and although they include one in that vein (i.e. “Right Where I Began”), they also have intelligent, and even socially progressive songs like “Predestined “which questions how much we control the future. <P>The album gets off auspiciously with Boland duetting with Sunny Sweeny on “I Don’t Deserve You” followed by the emotive title track with clever wordplay about a 17-year-old brother and ten-year-old sister with lyrics like these: “We need to fill the smokehouse/Winter is coming on/I know it isn’t easy/Since mom and dad been gone/We will keep on growing/Two branches of the tree/Because hard times are relative/When it comes to family.”                  

 “Do You Remember When” and “Tattoo Of A Bruise” are statements on the need to preserve history but perhaps the best of that subject is “Grandfather’s Theme” which boasts these lyrics: “We’ve flown a long, long way/”Since the days of my grandfather’s time/And I can’t say it’s all been forward/I don’t know what I’d say to any grandson of mine/If he was trying to make his own way starward.”

Other subjects weave into the mix such as his scathing commentary on fake news in “Dee Dee OD’d” and the analogy of a home run hitting baseball player to the guy trying to emphatically end a relationship in “Going, Gong, Gone.” In whatever setting, Boland proves to be both a storyteller and a messenger.  Heady material done honky-tonk style – indeed it’s a rare combination but there’s so much to digest here that it makes for repeated listens. Boland is a poet and a vastly underrated songwriter, especially given the buzz about others named Jason these days.

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