Album Review: Justin Haigh – People Like Me

If you missed Justin Haigh’s first album — and possibly even if you didn’t — People Like Me is liable to set your head spinning. Sophomore albums by little-known artists on small-time Texas indie labels (Apache Ranch Records’ only other act is Nashville Star Season 1 runner-up John Arthur Martinez) aren’t supposed to be this consistently wonderful.

From the first few lines of self-penned album opener “All My Best Friends (Are Behind Bars),” it’s clear that Haigh is working in the same Texas honky tonk vein that produced ’90s stars Tracy Lawrence, Mark Chesnutt, and Tracy Byrd. Yet the breadth and quality of material on People Like Me suggest a seriousness and intent of purpose at odds with the pejorative connotations of the term “hat act.”

In fact, Justin Haigh is anything but just another hat act. Not just any schmuck in a Stetson is entrusted with top-shelf songs from Bobby Pinson, Kelley Lovelace, Erv Woolsey (George Strait’s longtime manager), Mary Gauthier, and Jamey Johnson on his sophomore album. Especially not without name recognition or major label backing. And not just any schmuck in a Stetson can do as much with such songs as Haigh does here.

While “All My Best Friends,” “Jack Daniels on Ice,” and “People Like Me” prove Haigh’s mettle with good-timing dance songs, “I Ain’t Leaving” (Mary Gauthier/Travis Meadows) and “Is It Still Cheating” (Jamey Johnson/Randy Houser/Jerrod Niemann) show him equally capable with uber-intelligent contemporary ballads and visceral Vern Gosdin-style heartbreak songs.

Waylon Jennings gets his due with a cover (a “Rose in Paradise” to equal the original) and title-centric tribute song, but the album is marked even more strongly by a different Texas singer-songwriter. Kevin Higgins, with whom I was not familiar before finding his name in the credits, contributes two of the album’s strongest tracks in “Monahans” and “In Jail,” both evocative story songs rich with dusty detail and sly humor. He wrote them, along with album closer “Gathering Dust,” solo. As a performer, Higgins fronts a Texas band called The Dust Devils. Here, he’s sort of the Billy Joe Shaver to Haigh’s neotrad Honky Tonk Heroes. If the album gets the attention it deserves, both men stand to benefit.

If smart traditional country with mainstream appeal is what you’re after, People Like Me does it better than any of the high-profile releases from Chris Young, Blake Shelton, or Ashton Shepherd due next week. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it show up on some Best of 2011 lists.

Artist Website | Amazon

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About C.M. Wilcox

A freelance writer and humorist with an abiding love of country music, C.M. Wilcox's cutting, clear-eyed take on the genre has drawn the attention of Country Weekly, The Washington Post, and The Tennessean in the years since this site began. He lives near Sacramento and can be reached by email at CMW (at) countrycalifornia.com.

Things People Are Saying

  1. I bought this album on your recommendation a few weeks ago, but haven’t given it a good listen yet. I must have gone through it once though, because about three songs are missing from my iTunes, which means I listened once and removed the ones that I didn’t like. Only deleting three is pretty good for me.

  2. Easily my favorite album of the year so far.

  3. Andrew Leprich says:

    You’ve convinced me, CM. This one is going on my “to buy” list.

  4. I was not aware of this guy until reading this review. Thanks for tuning me in, am definitely going to check out both of his albums.

  5. Thanks for giving West Texan songwriter KEVIN HIGGINS the nod. We’re thrilled that Haigh chose to dedicate a full quarter of his cd covering Higgins’ material, (written on his own, no co-writers). Too bad Haigh changed the lyrics to “In Jail”…Higgins’ original version is WAY more “outlaw” , as well as “narratively compelling”:

    When they ask me if I’ve been reformed,
    I’ll say, “Y’all let me out so I can strangle that whore.”

Trackbacks

  1. [...] the best kept secrets in contemporary country music today. I recently learned of him thanks to this review by C.M. Wilcox over at Country California and it’ll likely be one of the best country music [...]

  2. [...] that’s as musically enjoyable as it is narratively compelling. The whole album is reviewed here… but to summarize, it’s pretty darn [...]

  3. [...] records by the excellent Sunny Sweeney, country chart debutant Craig Campbell, independent artist Justin Haigh, blue collar bluegrass newcomer Scott Holstein, the compelling close harmonies of the Gibson [...]

  4. [...] – The Texas Music Awards, for naming the Kevin Higgins composition “Monahans” as Song of the Year. I singled “Monahans” out for particular praise in my review of Justin Haigh’s People Like Me. [...]

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