Let’s take that Johnny Cash thing and run with it for a moment: the third track of The Highballers’ new self-titled album is “Lula’s Gone” – and if you crank it up and close your eyes, it’s real easy to imagine …
Uncle Tupelo has just slammed their way through “The Long Cut”, a live studio take during the sessions for 1993’s Anodyne. There’s no denying the tension between frontmen Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar; it would be strong enough to blow the band apart in a few more months but for now, it’s enough to fuel the blistering churn they’ve just laid to tape. There’s heat shimmering off the amps and tube stink in the air when the studio door opens – and in strides Johnny Cash and his wife, June Carter. The band is stunned by the appearance of two of their heroes; Cash smiles and nods like they’re all old pals.
“Boys,” he says, “that was a fine, fine tune. What was the name of that?”
“‘The L-l-l-ong Cut’” says Tweedy, his voice having gone from rocker roar to a 13-year-old’s squeak in the presence of royalty.
“That’s a hot one, ain’t it?” says Cash, as he takes an acoustic guitar out of the case he lugged in. “Could you boys do me a favor? June’s got a tune here that I think could use that kind of spunk – it goes kinda like this …” And he plays a couple of verses as June sings, joining her on the choruses. The members of Uncle Tupelo are still somewhat dazed, but they’re taking in every chord change.
Cash pauses in his strumming. “Now what I’d like to try is having you boys play this tune with the same kinda spirit you played that ‘Long Cut’ song with, alright? Wail on them guitars and drive that rhythm – and me an’ June will see if we can keep up. Okay?”
There’s a heartbeat of silence … and then another … and then Tweedy and Farrar sort of shake themselves and say “Okay” in unison. They turn to face drummer Ken Coomer and Farrar counts off: “One … two … one two three four!”
And it’s easy to believe that what followed would sound just like “Lula’s Gone” on the new Highballers album: except that’s Victoria Patchen on lead vocals with Kendall Jackson singing harmony behind her and grinding out the rhythm while Sean Lally pulls off all those wailing bends and double-stop riffs – and drummer Drake Sorey and bassist Mike Barrientos thrash and womp beneath it all, giving the beast not only a backbone but teeth and claws as well. (And just to clarify the preceding fantasy sequence: Jackson wrote “Lula’s Gone” – he wrote or co-wrote all but one of the album’s 10 cuts.)
Ladies and gentlemen, meet The Highballers: purveyors of twangdream fantasies, delivering the sounds of alt-country summits that never happened.
Keep on a’readin’: Click right here to read the rest of my Highballers review on Jambands.com