Pioneering UK country veteran Hank Wangford has been on a mission for the past thirty years to inform the public that country music is not all rhinestone and showbiz smiles. He’s been smitten by the dark underbelly, the god fearing singer who behind closed doors is a raging drunk pilled to the gills, a monster who writes beautiful songs about death, divorce and drunkenness. Introduced to the music of the patron saint of drunks, George Jones by Gram Parsons (whom Wangford knew at the tail end of the sixties) Wangford was singing country to punk audiences well before Costello went all blue and The Mekons hightailed it to Chicago.
Now Hank wants to reclaim the waltz, the 3/4 signature that fuels the majority of sad country songs. Typically seen today as “middle aged and suburban” as Wangford notes in his short essay in the album booklet, the waltz was seen as decadent when first introduced to English society by Lady Caroline Lamb in 1816 with dancers touching each other’s body, “sex on legs.” He goes on to say “the saddest country songs are in three four. It’s certainly the best rhythm for a slow drunken shuffle in a honky tonk bar with some voluptuous intertwining of limbs.”
So Save Me The Waltz is a double album of slow sad country songs that share that three four rhythm as Hank and the excellent Lost Cowboys take the listener down a lost highway littered with broken souls, cripples, plane wrecks, heartache and sin. A double dose of misery that will delight any connoisseur of the genre( and timely for those who enjoyed My Darling Clementine’s recent albums) as Hank delves into his favourite writers as well as delivering some fine tearjerkers of his own. Willie Nelson scores four covers here while The Louvins, Dallas Frazier, Woody Guthrie and Wayne Kemp get one apiece. More up to date Gram Parsons and Lucinda Williams and surprisingly Lennon/McCartney are also covered.
The band sail through the first disc (entitled The Light with disc two, The Dark) splendidly with the rhythm section (Kevin Foster, bass and Roy Dodds, percussion) laying down an unobtrusive backbeat while Martin Belmont and BJ Cole add lilting pedal steel, throbbing heartbreak guitar and breezy Dobro as Anna Robinson accompanies Wangford on some excellent harmonies. It’s delightful to sit back and wallow in this with the lazy fat guitar of Half A Man and the dappled Appalachian Dobro of Get Acquainted Waltz swim hypnotically in your head. Wangford’s title song itself is somewhat sublime with Belmont curling his guitar licks around the words while Cole lurks mischievously on Dobro and Hank and Anna twirl wondrously around each other on vocals.
Disc two (The Dark) is less comfortable, edgier and, well, darker. Waltzing With Sin features Larry Love of the Alabama 3 ( thanked in the liner notes for sounding like Richard Burton on acid) and it’s a big production number with fuzz guitar and space age cosmic pedal steel, fantastic. Baby’s In Black is another fuzz fuelled pedal steel driven epic (think Sneaky Pete here, hot railing the Burritos) with some pummelling percussion. It’s notable that Wangford penned most of the songs here and by and large they stand up to scrutiny compared to the covers. Lies is tied to the roots of Nelson and Jones while Lonely Together is a fine riposte to Willie Nelson’s Permanently Lonely as Wangford injects some hope and optimism while maintaining the sad slow waltz melody. While Lonely Together is one of five songs on the album previously released it fits the concept so well we have to pause while the beauty of this song hits home and listen to it again as The Lost Cowboys deliver a master class in aching country music. Mention should be made of two songs recorded with Billy Bragg in the eighties (and released as B sides to Bragg singles), a fine rendition of Sin City and a heartfelt Deportees which sit well within the album.
Save The Waltz is obviously a labour of love for Wangford who in his 73rd year could reasonably be expected to be sitting at home, pipe and slippers to hand. Instead he’s hitting the road with The Lost Cowboys and he’s in Glasgow next week (Thursday 15th May) at the 02 ABC. With Martin Belmont and BJ Cole in the band you get three legends for the price of one. Other tour dates here
Soundcloud won’t let me uplift some songs for some reason so head here to listen to two of the songs.