Jason Boland and the Stragglers have a huge cult following in Texas and surrounding environs, and even though they've been around since 1998 and this is their 10th album, they are virtually unknown outside their Lone Star State fan base. Boland's fans will tell you that's because of his uncompromising commitment to "real country," not the hybridized pop fluff found on the radio dial these days. And that's certainly true - although the inclusion of such NSFR songs as "It's Alright to be an Asshole" and "Fuck, Fight and Rodeo" pretty much guarantee programming directors aren't going to give you a listen. But the radio is not the only or even main way people find new music now, is it? There must be another reason Boland hasn't hit it bigger.
Maybe it's because this red dirt cowboy has the soul of a poet and the heart of a social reformer. And maybe that's not what potential new fans expect from his and the Stragglers' appearance. And it might not be what they expect if they've actually heard him before. If you're not from the Southwest and you're familiar at all with Boland and the Stragglers, then it's probably from songs like the filthy but funny "Rich, Young, Dumb Nymphomaniac" or a hard-partying tune like "12 Ounce Curls" or "When I'm Stoned," and there's none of that here.
What is here is intelligent social commentary with nary a nymphomaniac or a dram of whiskey in sight. Boland has a way with words topped only by another Jason - Jason Isbell. "Once you read between the lines / You'll miss the days when you were blind" Boland sings on "Break 19," but of course that's not an option so he's going to keep singing about what he sees and for the most part, he's not too happy with the view.
"Fat and Merry" has a cheerful danceable beat, but listen closely. It's a scathing indictment of modern times. And don't look for anything festive or cheery on "Christmas in Huntsville" where an innocent man eats his final meal on death row. It's hard to tell sometimes who Boland is directing this anger towards - like the best poets, he can often be interpreted different ways - although the politicians firing up anti-immigration sentiment come in for some specific ire on "Fuck, Fight and Rodeo" "We're told the hate our freedom, so let's put up a fence / Maybe build a prison or two / The size of California and Texas oughta do."
It's not all unrelenting gloom though. Boland leavens the album with a couple of heartfelt love songs, the couple equally enamored of the highway and of each other in "Heartland Bypass" and the nostalgic look back at how a lifetime of love began "Bienville." But one way - maybe the only way - this album could have been better would be if Boland had added just a soupcon or two of his trademark humor.