The adage would have us believe that a leopard never changes his spots. So, I guess, James Scott Bullard must be some other kind of cat altogether. A collection of his earlier tracks titled The Rise and Fall of… (recently released on Big Mavis, remastered and repackaged) presents tracks from his first four albums, all now out of print. The music on The Rise and Fall… would never knowingly upset the neighbours in the way that Full Tilt Boogie promises to do. The Rise and Fall… is a strong collection of songs, showing influences from the classic country rock of Gram Parsons and the Rolling Stones to modern Americana singer-songwriters such as Justin Townes Earle and Ryan Adams. In fact, Bullard released an EP titled Oh This Land (A Tribute to Gram Parsons) in 2015, which may see its way to being reissued at some point, but listening to Full Tilt Boogie for the umpteenth time, the same question arises again and again; just what happened to this guy in the intervening years between his first records and this new one? The love songs have soured, the gentle country rockers have become distorted and amped up, the general vibe is far greasier and hungover. In short, the new album has got a whole lot more Whiskey Preachin. I worry that Bullard may have started carrying a flick knife instead of a comb.
Full Tilt Boogie kicks in from the very first distorted guitar chord of Lord, Have Mercy, like a heavy country gospel tune gone to the dark side, a cry for a soul to be saved before it’s too late. When the second track, Wicked Ways, kicks in, we know it’s already too late. The guitars are still distorted but the drums are pounding a much faster tempo and the organ is squeaking out all that damn honky tonk rock and roll. Then you get to the breakdown you know you’re in for a real good time! All to Pieces lays off a little, but only a little, allowing you to regroup before the Chuck-Berry-on-steroids of Hey Hey Mama kicks in, with lyrics like “I’m gonna love you mama like it’s against the law” stoking the fires. Track six, Jesus, Jail or Texas, has to be my favourite, possibly the most country track on the album, with a nice shuffle beat and fantastic lyrics telling of the different ways that women have managed to escape our protagonist: “One girl she went to Texas, two that went to jail, there or four found Jesus and the rest can go straight to hell”. The guitars are still distorted and there’s plenty of nice slide action, like ZZ Top fronted by Kinky Friedman. Leavin’ on My Mind ramps up the tempo to a furious, demented, pace, taking us on a break-neck tour through Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Carolina, anywhere but here.
Is this a country album with pretentions towards being a rock record, or a rock album masquerading as a country record? Isn’t that just a stupid question? Does is really matter, if it sounds this good? At Whiskey Preachin, this is what we would describe as 100% bona fide Gumbo Rock, music that mashes up its influences and comes out with something fresh, a new sound made up of recognisable parts but for which no one signifier is sufficient to describe it. Bullard was raised up in South Carolina with a country and bluegrass musician for a father. As a kid, he grew up loving heavy rock but was surrounded by the music that later influenced him to start making the music on Full Tilt Boogie; the Southern rock of Lynyrd Skynrd, Tom Petty and The Allman Brothers (whose influence shines on the album’s closing track, Back to You), the classic rock and roll of Little Richard and Elvis and pure honky tonk of the world’s first punk rocker, Hank Williams; all these influences can be heard when listening to Full Tilt Boogie, so it’s little surprise that we love it at Whiskey Preachin. After all, these are the same artists that form the bedrock on which we built our shack. Why would we want to hear anything else?