Chuckles in My Beer
Willie Heath Neal’s latest record, Out of Highway, is a rollicking good time that is sure to enliven a backyard barbecue or perk up a long-haul drive. In eight originals and four covers, Neal’s weary baritone guides sympathetic musicians from honky-tonk to punk to rock.
Neal’s women are always on their way out the door, while the men are no-account drunkards. In “Outlaw Song” a befuddled hell-raiser can’t believe that his ex prefers a “suit-and-tie briefcase guy” to a cowboy, with lyrics such as “All I ever heard you say was things have got to change / Thought you were lookin’ for a job.” Meanwhile, the musician in “Porter’s Blues” at least recognizes he bears some responsibility for never hitting the Nashville big time: “He’d be the first one to admit / He’s got a couple habits that he just can’t kick.”
Lively music and generous humor rescue these losers from cliché and manage to hook listeners. In “Cryin’ All the Time,” Neal sings “There are times when you feel like you’ve been buried alive,” but galloping drums, propulsive guitar, and upbeat banjo fight back the despair.
“Something’s Wrong with the Radio” is musical slapstick, with barrelhouse piano and old-timey banjo framing the tale of a songwriter delighted that his ex is finally gone but irate that radio stations won’t play the great breakup song he wrote celebrating her departure. Underscoring his frustration, the chorus shifts jarringly from faux-Dixieland to sludgy electric guitars. This original more than holds its own against Neal’s cover of C. W. McCall’s novelty song “The Classifieds.”
Neal recognizes that the outlaw image conceals genuine despair and outright absurdity, but musical exuberance and clever lyrics guarantee that you’ll be tapping your toes to that insight.