In recent years, Trent Summar has had a hand in penning cuts by Gary Allan and Billy Currington (“Guys Like Me” and “She Knows What to Do With a Saturday Night” respectively) and one of Jack Ingram’s highest-charting singles to date (“Love You”). He also heads up his own band, The New Row Mob, which has released three albums (two studio, one live) since 2000. Back in 1994, he put out an album on Giant Records as the lead singer of Hank Flamingo.
If those good-natured co-writes and band names have you thinking that Summar presents himself as a fun-loving sort of guy, you’re right. Wry mainstream honky tonk sounds like a pretty improbable genre description, yet here it is. I picked up the band’s 2006 album Horseshoes & Hand Grenades a couple weeks ago.
Summar refers to his sound as farm rock, but he’s not talking Jason Aldean. His website bio explains:
[W]e’re talking about that intersection where Chuck Berry rock and George Jones country converge. We’re talking about love songs that veer off the beaten path with honest slices of rural imagery and humor. It’s a place on the musical map that’s entirely familiar but just a little too rowdy, a little too much fun (and in truth, too rooted in tradition) to be called mainstream country.
While that might sound like PR babble, it’s actually a pretty apt description. Most of these songs are close enough to mainstream that they could be covered by big stars without anyone balking – yet, as presented here, they’re also pretty country. The sound is sort of even ’90s neotraditional, except that there’s this punk attitude behind it that seems aware of that fact. Beyond the sound, the thing that most distinguishes Summar is his songwriting, which manages to be both inventive (sometimes characterized by a Robbie Fulks-ish sense of irreverence and wordplay) and accessible (Billy Currington still understands it). Ultimately, it’s a winning combination.
On Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, Summar records his own versions of his three notable cowrites, and they all hold up to the more familiar recordings. Fans of those songs should also enjoy radio-ready tunes like “Supposed to Do,” “Really Never Loved Her Anyway,” and the title track, all of which exhibit a similar charm. There are also bits of cornpone like “Hayride” and “Pink John Deere” that mostly manage to fall on the fun side of novelty. “Louisville Nashville Line” chugs along with all the energy you’d expect of a traveling song, while “Girl from Tennessee” sways with the easy and infectious confidence of the woman it describes.
The real centerpiece of the album, though? A version of “He Stopped Loving Her Today” as brilliant as it is sacrilegious. It begins like a faithful cover until the first chorus, at which point it suddenly becomes a punk fight song. Just as abruptly, it slows down again as chorus turns to verse. This is continued throughout, the jarring transitions turning this really terribly sad song into a big ol’ party. For the spoken part, Summar offers a thoroughly tongue-in-cheek recitation as a bunch of guys do some pretty ragged “ooh-ooh-oohs” in the background to create drama (or, rather, to poke fun at the lush heavy-handedness of the original Billy Sherrill production).
It’s the sort of wise-guy move that’s bound to make some traditionalists uncomfortable. But as far as covering “He Stopped Loving Her Today” goes, it’s actually a good call: since nobody can out-sad George Jones, go for an entirely different feeling, and one that you’re uniquely equipped to deliver: Make it fun. And that it is.
Ready? Okay, now forget everything you just read and decide for yourself: