Mark Utley. Bulletville. Sleep Cat Records. This Is American Music

Blabber’n’Smoke first came across Cincinnati’s Mark Utley when we reviewed Magnolia Mountain’s album Town And Country back in 2012. A double album that spanned the breadth of country rock from folky roots to grungier grooves Town and Country was followed by Beloved which delved into a Muscle Shoals direction while Utley simultaneously released a solo album that hankered more to his country leanings. His next step was to form a band that would perform the country songs from the solo album and hence Bulletville was born. A splinter group of sorts Bulletville features Magnolia Mountain members Renee Frye (vocals), Jeff Vanover (guitar), and Todd Drake (drums) who are joined by bassist Ken Kimbrell, keyboardist Ricky Nye and pedal steel guitarist John Lang. Here they deliver a solid package of tear stained and heart wrenching country songs that run the gamut from George and Tammy like laments to beer fuelled honky tonking gut busters fuelled by lashings of pedal steel.

The album opens with the loping bass into to Good Timin’ Girl, a breeze of a song with a classic bittersweet country tale that could have been written by Dolly Parton and sung by Kenny Rogers, in fact if Rogers or any of his ilk ever took this on then it would be a guaranteed hit. As it is the performance here is exemplary, Utley almost croons the words while Frye adds a multtitracked refrain, the pedal steel is sweet and honeyed and Nye offers up a fine piano solo. Wish You Were Her however steers well clear of the charts and heads for the bars as the band sway into Ameripolitan territory and the guitars grimace instead of smile. A woozy waltz time lament with a seventies feel courtesy of the electric keyboards and fuzzy bass line it sees Utley and his partner sharing a table but separated by miles of estrangement. The album is packed full of these wonderful odes to lost or failed love with Utley mining the past and coming up with new treasures such as the classic couplet “I just can’t remember to forget” on the honky tonk tones of Remember To Forget while Honey I’m Home weeps wonderfully as Utley swaps the family home for the local pub in an attempt to drown his sorrows. One Heartbeat At A Time is another break up song but it’s delivered with the commercial heartbeat that John Hartford sounded out on Gentle On My Mind and is another example of the commercial potential contained herein. While all of the band are in excellent form here Renee Frye in particular sparkles with her harmony support with Only In Our Minds an excellent country duet. She has two showcases here, the rolling and tumbling boogie Firecracker where she is as sassy as Loretta Lynn while The Only Thing is another tear jerking lament offering the female counterpoint to Utley’s songs of loss.

If this were all the album would be a winner but they throw in a couple of belters just to up the ante. Four In The Morning swaggers in with a muscular swing as beefy pedal steel and swirling organ churn and boil over a menacing rhythm producing a song that has the heft of a Joe Ely song back when he was a pal of The Clash. Jesus Wept is simpler in its delivery with some Bakersfield country in the twang guitars as Utley sings “I’m broke as hell, all my bills are due, My girlfriend’s mad and my wife is too” on a song that just about encapsulates the stereotype of red necked country music lovers. It’s a bit of a hoot. Utley closes the album with the only cover, a version of fellow TIAM artists, Great Peacock’s Bluebird which he dresses up in warm vocals and sweet pedal steel murmurings, a sweet end to a meaty album.

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