It is no secret that country music has really gone downhill in recent years, both in the mainstream and underground alike. In fact, many of the late, great progenitors of the movement – Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Woodie Guthrie, Waylon Jennings, and Merle Haggard, to name a few – would undoubtedly roll over in their graves if only for a moment they were subjected to what passes as country music these days. Like a piece of depreciated real estate, no one wants to live anywhere within close proximity to modern country music anymore, save for a few brave souls scattered about the globe who have dedicated themselves to rescuing the genre.
One of those brave souls is singer/songwriter Tom VandenAvond, whose latest release on Hillgrass Bluebilly Records “You Oughta Know Me By Now” proves just how far he’s willing to go to do his part for country and other roots-related forms of music. This soft-spoken, cool-mannered, scruffy-faced Texan is all trucker caps and flannel shirts, and his songs somehow sound the way he looks.
At present, stepping forth from the vast shadows of the old country greats and into the light of today’s country, we have bands and singer/songwriters such as Austin Lucas, The Sixtyniners, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, Hank III (the very grandson of Hank Williams, Sr. himself), Possessed by Paul James, The Devil Makes Three, and of course Tom VandenAvond. Hell, even in the place of sub-categorical country artists whose styles strayed more into the realms of bluegrass, Appalachian folk and Americana, like Earl Scruggs and Dock Boggs, we now have Phillip Roebuck, One Man Banjo, Royer, and The Dad Horse Experience. As such, it is important that we celebrate these artists; after all, it is because of them that important, meaningful and worthwhile country music and other roots styles didn’t perish along with their originators. So, even more than an album review, that’s what this piece is: a celebration of Tom VandenAvond and his contribution to country and roots music so far.
Tom’s songs are as real and down-to-earth as the patrons that populate the dive bars he frequents. Indeed they are as potent as the shots of liquor he throws back, as bittersweet as the beer chasers that follow, and as muddy as the cups of coffee that no doubt serve as so many early morning remedies. His sound doesn’t just possess the spirit of VandenAvond himself but that of Texas as well. All such comparisons aside, it is quite simply a sound that is rustic and romantic, gritty and honest and raw, with a bit of alt-country twang and folky balladry. And between his smoky, mellow vocals and a little crooning, the stripped-down notes and chords of VandenAvond’s acoustic guitar and the combined instrumentation of the backing band, great songs such as “Rustbelt,” “The Landlady,” and “Dear Dirty Dublin” are born. Also worth a mention are the album’s opening track “Knights Ferry,” the title track “You Oughta Know Me By Now,” an upbeat Spanish number titled “Vacilando” (which literally translates into hesitating), and the closing track “Even the Olives are Bleedin’.”
In a way Tom VandenAvond’s songs are of the sort one might hear playing on a barroom jukebox at two o’ clock in the morning, last call having been announced, as the last few tendrils of cigarette smoke drift up into the dimly set light fixtures, a tired couple shuffles through the last few drunken steps of a slow dance out on the floor, and the remaining whiskey is sipped from tumblers and beer drained from bottles. They are also the sorts of songs one might hear on the drive home after leaving the bar at two-thirty in the morning, emanating from the old, battered speakers of an equally old and battered Chevy, while the early morning scenery goes by in a blur outside, and the country road goes on like a winding ribbon of asphalt to the horizon. ‘Course, he also writes and plays the occasional foot-tappin’, hand-clappin’ number, with the all energy and excitement of just starting out for the night, the winding down portion of it all a seemingly distant eventuality…more like bonfire shindigs with good pals, beautiful women, fiery gulps of Mason jar moonshine, and deep pulls on roll-your-own cigarettes than the former scenario.
“You Oughta Know Me By Now” is Tom VandenAvond’s fifth full-length album to date, after a self-titled release, “A Gambler’s Prayer,” “A Broken Home Companion,” and “The Right Time.” Truth of the matter is, the self-titled album, for which VandenAvond had The Weary Boys as a backing band, was his courageous first step out into the scene, and it remains a fan favorite to this day. “You Oughta Know Me By Now,” however, for which he had Larry & His Flask as a backing band, may just be Tom VandenAvond at his very best. Then again, he is also at his best on the two songs he contributed to Hillgrass Bluebilly’s two-disc tribute to Hank Williams and Leadbelly, “Hiram & Huddie.” And his accomplishments as a singer/songwriter don’t stop there, as he made an appearance in M.A. Littler’s film “The Folk Singer,” along with John Konrad Wert (Possessed by Paul James), Scott H. Biram, Ghostwriter, and Reverend Deadeye.
At present it is my understanding that a tour is being planned for Tom VandenAvond and singer/songwriter Soda. I for one will be checking the locations and dates in hopes that he will hit the East Coast and pass through Philadelphia in doing so.