Derek Hoke may begin his debut record with a fond farewell to rock and roll, but he doesn’t leave it far behind. His gentle, unpretentious brand of throwback country often seems just a hiccup away from the early rock of Buddy Holly. Fans of The Wrights and The Little Willies should take particular note.
While the album-opening title track finds Hoke bidding adieu to the “big guitars, the screaming and the shouting” (“I’ll get by without ’em,” he promises), he wastes no time in establishing the depth of his engagement with and affection for classic country music. The second song is “The Finer Things,” an infectious dance number made for sawdust floors, and it tackles a common theme – the celebration of life’s simple pleasures – with a knowing wink, as Hoke includes lines like “I want minimum wage with no overtime/I’ll cash my check in the picket line/I want a mean old woman that I can call my wife” in his list of back-to-basics rural aspirations.
With prominent steel work by Chris Scruggs and Mike Daley throughout and vocal contributions from Rebecca Lynn Howard on a full half of the tracks, the album is a dynamic joy for those who prefer their music free of cacophonous clutter. It benefits greatly from some slightly off-the-wall production choices, such as the sprightly whistling and plonking xylophone that drive home the essential innocence of the very Hollyesque “Hot on the Heels of Love” and the jaw harp and hand claps adding just the right touch of musical whimsy to “Rain, Rain, Rain,” a song whose lyrics similarly couch real hurt and despair in almost storybook-like terms, what with the personification of weather elements:
The sun got tired and hid behind the clouds
The thunder clapped and the rain came down
And I woke up on the wrong side of town
All alone in a stranger’s bed
The songs frequently find Hoke on the losing side of love: a smitten shy guy who can’t work up the nerve to make his affections known (“Still Waiting”), the fella left at home as his mate runs around on him (“Where’d You Sleep Last Night?”), the poor schmuck who doesn’t realize what he should’ve done to save the relationship until it’s too late (“Not Too Late” and “I Think I Really Love You”). The lightweight “Sweet Pea,” on which Hoke and duet partner Jen Duke sound very much like Adam and Shannon Wright, comes as a welcome change of pace, for the simple fact that it’s the only song in which a love relationship seems to be going right.
The biggest flaw I see is that the record runs a bit short at 10 songs and just over 30 minutes. When the music is this much fun, though, it seems selfish to complain that there’s not enough of it. Let’s be thankful for what’s here and call Goodbye Rock N Roll what it is: one of the finest country debuts of 2009. Keep your eye on Derek Hoke and Electric Western Records, the recently-formed Nashville indie that brought it to market.
Edited to add: Here’s the music video for “Where’d You Sleep Last Night?”