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Roger Wallace is the most acclaimed new country music talent to rise of late out of Austin, Texas. He’s earned that status by creating classic country that mixes deep rural roots with a cosmopolitan refinement and eloquence. Taking his cue from Nashville’s creative golden age circa 1960, when a plethora of gifted singers and writers brought a new Southern sophistication to the music, Wallace all but defines quality country for the contemporary age.
On The Lowdown, his Lone Star Records debut and third release, Wallace brings it all back home to the days when Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Lower Broadway in Nashville was the gathering place for a veritable explosion of country music talent. He does so by recruiting some of the most gifted musicians in Austin, the current capital of real country music, including guest singer Toni Price on "Blow Wind Blow" and noted producer and guitarist Derek O’Brien. As well, the disc features Wallace’s all-star Austin band, the members of which, as usual, he credits with their valuable contributions on the CD’s cover.
The Lowdown includes seven songs from Wallace as well as material by the late, great Harlan Howard and pop classicists Friml & Hammerstein, and contributions from such masterful Austin writers as Teri Joyce and Timmy Campbell. It ranges through a wide swath of country music modes that stretches from Wallace’s native Tennessee to Texas where he now lives. And riding high in the saddle atop the music is his distinctive and sumptuous voice.
One of the many qualities that distinguishes The Lowdown from the current neo-country crop is Wallace’s inclusive approach. Rather than reference a single style or artist, as many of his revivalist peers do, Wallace draws from a variety of singers and writers to create an approach that is etched with the force of his own voice and personality.
One could say that Roger Wallace was all but born to sing and write country music, even though he came to doing so by a roundabout route. Born and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, he was reared by parents who played the local country station "on the radio all morning, every morning until I graduated from high school, and whenever we were in the car," explains Wallace.
But as much as country music was an integral part of Wallace’s life from the cradle, it was also, after all, his parent’s music. So when he first heard blues music as he entered his teens, Wallace immediately latched onto a musical sound that hit him emotionally, and was something of his own rather than that of his mother and father. Nonetheless, his parents still rather presciently told him that he would end up a country singer when he grew up. "I was like, ‘Nooooo. I want to sing the blues. I want to play basketball,’" Wallace recalls.
During his teen and college years, Wallace not only amassed a vast and deep grounding in the blues, but also sang in area blues and rockabilly bands and hosted the blues show on his college radio station at the University of Tennessee. But eventually the soul within the best country music also captured Wallace’s imagination. A close female friend would often play Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger when they hung out, and it "just turned me around. Until then, country had been just the music that was on at home. I had never really listened to it musically and lyrically," explains Wallace.
Soon after, Wallace took a road trip to Austin to check out its famed blues scene, having been a fan of the albums put out by Antone’s Records and the way they sounded (many of them produced by O’Brien). For the ride, he borrowed a Hank Williams greatest hits tape from another friend. Though he’d already heard Ray Charles sing "Your Cheating Heart," on his first taste of the original version, "I just got chills and tears," Wallace. "I thought to myself, ‘My God, that’s the stuff.’ If anyone was ever a blues singer, it was Hank Williams. You can hear how he hurts when he sings."
After his graduation, Wallace landed a job in 1994 doing blues radio promotion at Antone’s Records and moved to Austin. But he didn’t last long in the job because he ended up going out seven nights a week, inspired by such Austin acts as Wayne Hancock, Junior Brown, Don Walser, The Derailers and Ted Roddy. In turned out in due time to be the right career decision; ironically, Wallace now records for the sister label of the label he was fired from.
With the same fervor with which he’d become expert in the blues, Wallace now embraced the best of the country tradition. Already a fan of such writers as Tom Waits and Lyle Lovett, Wallace became a devotee of Nelson, Harlan Howard, Roger Miller, Hank Cochran and others. At the same time, he melded a range of vocal influences into his own trademark voice while also becoming adept at such Texas styles as honky-tonk and Western swing.
After two years in town checking out the talent and observing how they worked, as well as starting to write his own songs, Wallace finally stepped up to the mike at a country jam session led by guitarist and producer Jim Stringer. He was immediately welcomed into the local country community. Singer and songwriter Teri Joyce asked him to join her group the Tagalongs as a featured singer, and soon after Wallace started gigging with his own band, quickly sparking a buzz around town.
When Don Ayers of the small local Stockade Records label heard Wallace, he offered to finance some recordings that then became the album Hillbilly Heights when Texas Round-Up Records (co-owned by Asleep at the Wheel drummer David Sanger) stepped into the picture. Wallace’s debut garnered raves from the press and airplay on Americana radio, as did its follow-up, That Kind of Lonely. As the 1990s came to a close, Roger Wallace was being touted as the next great country voice and songwriter out of Austin.
Now, with The Lowdown, the lanky and handsome Wallace moves into the major league of neo-classic country contenders after honing his act on the Austin and Texas circuit. His music sounds almost revelatory here at the dawn of the 21st Century, yet it does so by taking as its reference the pivotal era in country between the 1950s and ‘60s, "when country went from hillbilly music to something a bit more uptown," as Wallace observes. It was a touchstone era in the music’s evolution that actually parallels who Wallace is.
"I think my attraction to the music of that era reflects my personality," he explains. "People don’t tend to think of poor Southern boys as also being educated and articulate. I’m definitely a Southern boy through and through, but at the same time I’m not a redneck. And the music I make is the same way. It’s definitely country music, but it’s got some sophistication and class to it." As a result, The Lowdown plays like high country music art, which is a quality the music could certainly use more of these days.
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