What’s the deal with the young guys sounding like old guys? And it’s not just the voice. Sure, Hellbound Glory frontman Leroy Virgil sings like Ryan Bingham with a Hank Jr. fixation, but he also writes (11 of 12 tracks on this, the Reno band’s sophomore outing) like a man who cut his teeth on the best of Johnny Paycheck and Waylon Jennings. Old Highs & New Lows, the follow-up to 2008’s Scumbag Country, is a drug-addled party of a record that succeeds by marrying boozy roadhouse charm with an unusually high standard of songcraft.
Opening tracks “Another Bender Might Break Me” and “Gettin’ High and Hittin’ New Lows” set the tone for the record, both in terms of Virgil’s knack for fresh turns of phrase and the pervasive subject matter (there’s more Oxycontin here than in DrunkenMartina’s dressing room).
Drug references are everywhere. Concern for a friend with “One Way Track Marks” on his arm (read: a nasty heroin habit) doesn’t slow the singer’s own descent into a lifestyle that he himself understands to be a “Slow Suicide.” Even poverty and love are figured in terms of drugs: being broke isn’t so bad until you’re “Too Broke to Overdose,” and the closest we get to a love song is a walking-impaired drunk’s somehow sweet plea to “Be My Crutch.”
And yet, it all sounds like a party – guitars and drums for muscle, banjos rolling through like hellfire, steel licks showing up at all the right times, Virgil’s pliable whiskey-and-gravel croon always exactly where it needs to be. It’s a legitimately fun and rewarding listen if you don’t mind the, er, topical homogeneity.
“Hank Williams Records” finds a man in hot water for blaring Hank Williams to cure his lovesick ills:
That landlord knocked upon my door
And said “Son, we’ve had a complaint”
I told that landlord and all the other tenants
They could f**k off if they don’t like Hank
There’s more at stake than music preferences, or competing notions of appropriate listening volume. This guy’s heartbroke and healing himself the best way he knows how, which happens to involve drinking himself into a hole and blaring Hank. To Virgil’s credit, he never loses sight of the hurt undergirding the self-destructive choices, even as the album as a whole does sort of come across as one long, celebratory downward spiral.
Beneath all the booze and swagger lies a wordsmith. Virgil characterizes the partners in the dysfunctional relationship of “Either Way We’re F**ked” as “mutual parasites,” bristles at being treated as “nothing but debris” on “In the Gutter Again,” and elsewhere manages what could very well be the first seamless integration of the word “sclerose” into a country song. He’s an exceptionally clever writer.
It’s to Hellbound Glory’s eternal credit that, when they do finally wrap up with a cover of “I’m a Long Gone Daddy” by (who else?) Hank Williams, it doesn’t stand out as any sort of departure from what they’ve been doing the whole rest of the time. It may be blasphemy to say so, but it sounds like it could even be a Virgil original.
Recommended if you like: Hank III, J.B. Beverley & the Wayward Drifters, Oxycontin.