Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Chuck's Wagon - "Chuck's Wagon" (Self-Release 2007)

With song titles like “Wreckless”, “Heartbreak”, and “You Lied” you get a pretty good idea of what to expect from the Chuck’s Wagon eponymously titled 2007 follow up to their debut EP Bootleg Special. Or at least you think you do.

Chuck’s Wagon is the brainchild and songwriting vehicle for Sydney, Australia’s Chuck Stokes. With the support of an impressively competent backing band, Chuck has been making some waves in Australia since he put the project together in 2005, and he’s brought his take on honky tonk over to Texas twice since September 2007.

While drawing clear inspiration from masters of the form Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Kris Kistofferson, there’s a rock ‘n’ roll undertone to Chuck’s Wagon that is evocative of Gram Parsons and Bruce Springsteen’s more countrified material (which is far superior to his rock ‘n’ roll outings in my humble opinion). It may be true that none of this is necessarily breaking new ground, but it is lyrically that Stokes really stakes out his own parcel of the genre.

A couple of good examples are “3AM”, which one would reasonably expect to have something to do with last call, and “Jesus”, a song for which you could be forgiven for assuming that the name speaks to the content. Neither proves to be the case, and it is this consistent defiance of expectation that really makes the songwriting stand out from the pack. The fact that the unexpected stories being told are so clearly uncontrived and coming from an honest place only serves to make them more appealing and worthy of many listens.

The production/engineering credit goes to Steve Newtown, a venerable and well known roots music producer down under. In spite of this, to my ear at least, the production is the weakest link here. There is a kind of warm coziness to the sound that leaves very little open sonic space and is reminiscent of the often over-produced establishment Nashville sound of the 1970’s – something I’ve never found appealing. Something a little more spare, more like Lee Hazlewood’s work with Gram Parsons, would have served these songs better. The incredibly cool reverb drenched pedal steel that shows up in places would have truly been a knockout punch in that context. Still, the songs are uniformly strong enough to overcome this and by mid-record it’s less than a distraction.

Chuck is headed back Texas way later this month and into June with long time blues and roots Aussie guitar slinger Kinnon Holt at his side, and it’s my recommendation you go check him out. As a touring act from abroad he not only needs your support, he deserves it. You can check out tour dates at

You can pick up Chuck’s Wagon at

3 out of 4 chuck wagons, baby.

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