There's a lot of warriors out on the road
Stories have been told and untold
Partly courage partly fear and doubt
I've been there; I know what I'm talkin' about.
"Every King Wears A Crown"
By W.R. "Bud" Thornton and J.D. Andrew
Modbillly is the powerful, masterful sound of The Boxmasters doing what they do best and daring to go even deeper with their third release (Sawmill/Vanguard).
Having hit the road hard in 2008 following the release of their acclaimed debut effort The Boxmasters, these musical warriors are now back to tell more stories as only they can -- some of their own previously untold stories, as well as some more familiar tales that they have somehow made all their own. The impressive result is Modbilly -- a rousing musical double dose that's shot full of fears and doubt, yet ultimately makes a courageous, heartfelt and life-affirming statement from a group of guys who've been there and done that at least a few times and definitely know what they're talking about.
"This time, I think everyone can hear that The Boxmasters are for real," says the group's W. R. "Bud" Thornton. "We mean what we say and we say what we mean, and more than ever, we feel really privileged to put this music out there and share it with people."
Modbilly represents considerably more than simply the Second Coming of The Boxmasters. Of course, technically speaking, Modbilly is actually the Third Coming of The Boxmasters since this wildly productive, wildly talented and just plain wild group's second album was in fact their late 2008 seasonal offering Christmas Cheer, a singular celebration of the good, the bad and the ugly spirit of the Yuletide.
And as it turns out, the third time is the charm here since Modbilly reflects another great leap forward for The Boxmasters – clearly, there is even more blood on these particular tracks. The core band -- Thornton on drums, lead and harmony vocals, J.D. Andrew on bass and guitar and harmony vocals and Mike Butler on guitar, Dobro and lap steel -- makes good on the group's original intention to dare to find out -- as Thornton has put it -- "what would happen if you put together Mott the Hopple and the Louvin Brothers?"
As on The Boxmasters, Modbilly offers two sides of one compelling, intensely felt story. One side offers twelve Boxmasters self-penned songs that feel a bit closer in spirit to the best moments of the acclaimed solo albums by Thornton. The originals on Modbilly include the most deeply felt and moving songs to ever grace a Boxmasters release, including such highlights as "Hollow Walls," "Going Home," "I Don't Wanna Know" and the poignant "I Never Let You Cry." Equally powerful is "Turn It Over," a haunting song written by Thornton and Brad Davis about a love letter that may come too late in a troubled relationship. As Thornton sings, "You know the desk in the bedroom/The one with all the scars/Look in the top left drawer you'll find/What's left of my heart."
Yet the wit and hard-earned wisdom one has come to expect from The Boxmasters is present and accounted for as demonstrated on the wonderfully titled "That's Why Tammy Has My Car," that feels very much of a piece with the standouts from the debut album -- including a classic line about feeling like "a debit to my gender" -- and even on "The Boxmasters Theme," the hilariously catchy theme song for the band lovingly crafted for the group by not one but two generations of Brill Building era songwriting royalty -- namely, Jeff Barry and Jed Leiber. As Thornton sings with lusty sincerity and conviction on "The Boxmasters Theme," "Do you have a hole/Deep inside your soul that needs fillin'/Well baby we're ready and willin'."
Once again, the Boxmasters have also artfully selected an eclectic group of cover songs that reflect their taste and sensibility in fascinating ways. For example, the Boxmasters version of Tom Rush's "Merrimack County" seems deeply connected to their own themes of the universal desire to leave home and to return on one's own terms. The Boxmasters have also recorded a classic country song by another King of the Road, the famously wry late great Roger Miller. Yet here they have chosen one of Miller's most straight-talking, heartbreaking gems, "Half A Mind," which the great Ernest Tubb helped make famous.
The Boxmasters have unearthed a lesser known masterpiece in the form of "Errol Flynn," a spectacularly effecting song written by Amanda McBroom with Gordon Hunt in tribute to her own father Ed Bruce, a Hollywood character actor who shared the silver screen with the legendary Flynn, among others. Just as impressively, as The Boxmasters did on The Boxmasters, the group even manages to take a song as familiar as The Rolling Stones' "As Tears Go By," and "re-Master" it into something brand new and wonderful in its own right.
Like other classic albums made by gifted musical road warriors, Modbilly is a song cycle about love and loss, about escaping and about going home assuming that one figures out where the hell home is exactly. "I'm not sure what it looks like/But I know I'm going home," Thornton sings on "Going Home," which he wrote with Brad Davis.
One listen to Modbilly, however, and there's little doubt that The Boxmasters have now made their own music home and it's one that's been built to last.
Listen again and you'll be reminded that with these guys, there's no place like home.
- David Wild