Essential Review – Blackberry Smoke’s ‘Like An Arrow’

While much of rock languishes in today’s music world, Blackberry Smoke is thriving. The southern rock/country rock group has yet to put out a bad album and continue to relentlessly tour across the country putting on some of the best live shows you can see. While all of their albums are enjoyable, it’s their 2016 album Like An Arrow that is the true gem of their catalog so far. It was their second album to reach #1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and rightly racked up a lot of critical acclaim. If you’re a fan of fusion country, this is an essential album to hear.

This album kicks ass from the moment you hit play on “Waiting for the Thunder.” The impressive roaring guitars hit you in the face like a ton of bricks. The lyrics scathingly take down powerful institutions that put down the men and women who bust their ass to get by. It’s a tornado of a song that just sort of leaves you in awe after hearing it. This may be one of the band’s best songs ever. “Let It Burn” can be interpreted as a dig at Music Row and it’s bullshit or any old small town across the country where people are fed up with the way things are run. Either way the lyrics hit hard and the guitars hit harder.

One of the more sentimental moments on the album is “The Good Life.” It’s about a father passing onto his son the advice his own father gave him when he was young. It’s a song that promotes the values of family, hard work and tradition. The heart behind the lyrics could bring a tear to your eyes. “Running Through Time” is one of those songs that band makes look and sound so easy. I love the soulful touches added in throughout the song, with an organ sneakily playing in the background. That soulful influence shows up again on “Believe You Me,” a song about you controlling your own destiny. Again the guitar work blows me away and combined with the soulful touches it just makes the band’s sound even better.

There are some songs on this album where you just have to sit back and admire the instrumentation work, like on “What Comes Naturally” and “Ought to Know.” The latter especially has a memorable riff in the bridge. The album’s title track is about going through the ups and downs of life. The guitar work on this song is extremely impressive and you’ll find yourself jamming along to this song with ease. Both the lyrics and instrumentation are so damn infectious and catchy. The same can be said about “Workin’ for a Workin’ Man.” Starr and the band sing about the grievances and pains of the workingman under the boss man. It’s a battle cry for everyone who feels short-changed at their jobs and at life. I mean look at lyrics like, “This bait and switch is a son of a bitch, it ain’t workin’ for a workin’ man, I got to shuck and jive just to even survive.” I find it impossible not to be hooked by lyrics like this because it’s not only catchy, but it can have real anger and power behind it thanks to the great delivery by Starr.

One song that sort of sneaks up on you is “Sunrise in Texas.” On the first listen it may not stand out as much as other songs on the album do, but with more listens it just gets better and better. Charlie Starr delivers one of his best vocal performances here, just belting the lyrics with conviction and fire. Then you have the crunchy guitars in the bridge and you just have to marvel at this song. “Ain’t Gonna Wait” leans more country than rock and shows this band could go straight country if they wanted to and sound just as great. But why choose one genre when you can nail two at once? The late, great Gregg Allman of the iconic Allman Brothers joins Blackberry Smoke on the album’s final song, “Free On The Wing.” This song is about finding your way in life and saying goodbye to old stories to say hello to new ones. It felt like this was a special passing of the torch moment between one of the best southern rock groups from yesteryear and arguably the best southern rock group today. To me Like An Arrow is going to be one of the moments that ultimately define the excellent legacy being set by Blackberry Smoke.

Album’s Top Highlights: Waiting For The Thunder, Workin’ for a Workin’ Man, Like an Arrow, The Good Life, Sunrise in Texas, Free on the Wing


Producer: Blackberry Smoke

Songwriters: Charlie Starr, Travis Meadows, Paul Jackson, Brandon Still, Richard Turner, Brit Turner, Michael Tolcher

Essential Review – Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives’ ‘Way Out West’

You can’t truly appreciate the sheer talent of a band until you see them live. I’ve had this proven to me time and time again, most recently with Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives. I can definitively say they put on one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. Marty, guitarist Kenny Vaughan, drummer Harry Stinson and bassist Chris Scruggs are each outstanding, whether they’re playing an instrument or stepping behind the mic to sing. I couldn’t have been more impressed by a band in a live setting. Last year they also impressed with their newest album Way Out West, an album I’ve seen many appropriately describe as cinematic. It was one of the best of 2017 and without a doubt deserves a spot in Fusion Country Classics & Essentials.

Way Out West is a true album, as each song is directly connected with each other. The opening songs “Desert Prayer, Pt. I” and “Mojave” set the scene for listeners and prepares us on a trippy exploration through the desert and the American west. On the latter we get our first tastes of surf-rock tinged guitar licks from Vaughan. The mood is perfectly set as we hear the first vocals from Stuart on “Lost on the Desert.” It’s the story of a man arrested for stealing a lot of money, which he hides out in the desert. Once he’s able to escape the hands of the law, he heads for the spot he hid the money. But the heat starts playing tricks on him and he can’t find the money or any water, as “the devil” had tricked him and left him to die in the desert. This song is such a prime example of vivid storytelling, from the descriptive lyrics to the mood set by the instruments.

The album’s title track takes us on a different kind of trip, a drug-induced one. It tells the tales of different instances a man take drugs and the experiences he feels. At the end Stuart tells us of the beauty of the American west, but if you ever go on a trip, don’t do drugs to take that trip. The psychedelic feel of the song sucks you right in and the beautiful harmonies make for a perfect close to the song. “El Fantasma del Toro” is probably my favorite instrumental on the album, in large part thanks to the great guitar work and the Mexican-flavored influences. The song puts me in mind of standing in the middle of a desert, the air dry, as I watch the steam rise in the distance while the sun beats down overhead. It’s the ideal atmospheric song for the American west.

“Old Mexico” is another gem that clicks upon first listen. It tells another tale of a criminal on the run, this time trying to make his way to Mexico to a beautiful señorita and more importantly freedom from a life in jail in the United States. The band’s harmonizing to close out this song is incredible and really adds an explanation point (it was even better live). “Time Don’t Wait” is really catchy, as the hook is instantly memorable. The band delivers another great instrumental in “Quicksand” that takes you right into their cover of Benny Goodman’s “Air Mail Special.” The song fits great into the band’s wheelhouse of foot-tapping, honky-tonk tunes and fits well within this album. “Torpedo” is another song that has some cool 60s, surf-rock influence that would have fit in nicely next to the Beach Boys music in their heyday. Not many bands could get away with the amount of instrumentals as there are on this album, but most bands aren’t as talented as Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives. Plus all of the instrumentals are just fantastic, a credit to how the tight this band is and producer Mike Campbell.

The somber-toned “Please Don’t Say Goodbye” is a heartbreak tune that sees a man lamenting to his woman to not walk out the door. The backing vocals from the band on this are the real secret sauce behind this song, as it adds levity and almost a haunting feel to the song. “Whole Lotta Highway” is the most traditional moment on the album, as it’s your classic truck-driving country song. It makes you want to hit the road and have an adventure. “Desert Prayer, Pt. II” features some soulful crooning from the band that segues right into “Wait for the Morning” and “Way Out West (Reprise).” The former has a reflective tone, as it’s a bring it on home moment after seeing the world and taking in the lessons you’ve learned along the way. Meanwhile the latter puts a fitting cap on the end of an album that feels more like an immersive movie experience.

Many artists in the latter stages of their career rest on their laurels and become complacent. But that’s certainly not the case for Marty Stuart. He’s as vibrant and energetic as any young artists today. More importantly he’s still pushing the creative boundaries to create new and exciting music for new and old generations alike. Way Out West is a shining landmark in his illustrious career and the careers of his Fabulous Superlatives. Stuart and his band revive an old sound and theme and breathe brand new life into it. If only more artists could innovate and follow the lead of this talented group. Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives and Way Out West are absolutely essential listening.

Album’s Top Highlights: Old Mexico, El Fantasma del Toro, Lost on the Desert, Time Don’t Wait, Torpedo, Way Out West


Producer: Mike Campbell 

Songwriters: Marty Stuart, Kenny Vaughan, Harry Stinson, Chris Scruggs, Benny Goodman, Brian Glenn Nolf