Hard-core Country fans in the UK (the ones who don’t need the word Ameripolitan explained to them) discovered a home grown hero in the shape of Ags Connolly when his debut album was released three years ago. He sang with an authentic voice and his songs mined traditional country tropes; the album cover featured Connolly alone in a bar which was festooned with portraits of country stars; Hank, Waylon, Willie, Johnny Paycheck and David Allan Coe. The opening song, When Country Was Proud, was a defiant reclamation of the tradition from the usurpers of modern day Nashville and was included in a list of the best country songs of the last 50 years by Country Music People. Not bad for a chap from Oxfordshire who recorded the album with a bunch of Scotsmen in a studio just outside Edinburgh.
Since then Connolly has been building up his support both here and in the States (where he toured last year with members of Pokey LaFarge’s band). He’s even been to Nashville where he had the opportunity to sing his salute to his favourite artist (I Saw James Hand) to the man himself. Over the three years we’ve had the opportunity to see Connolly live on four occasions and he continues to grow in stature on stage while a steady trickle of new songs into the live set whetted the appetite for a new album. Now, at long last, it’s here and suffice to say that it maintains the solid core of excellence that was evident on the first album as it also sets forth into newer territory.
Nothin’ Unexpected was again recorded in Pencaitland with the same team who turned in the tremendous honky tonk and hard core country sounds on How About Now. Producer Dean Owens is no stranger to Nashville and he helms the record with a crisp yet warm no frills approach. The band (Stuart Nisbet, Kev McGuire, Jim McDermott and Andy May) are just superb with Nisbet in particular shining as he handles electric twang, lap steel, mandolin and Dobro. May’s piano is up there with Hargus “Pig” Robbins while the rhythm section of McDermott and McGuire nail the songs be it rockabilly or border ballad. The addition of The Mavericks’ Michael Guerra on accordion and Eamon McLoughlin on fiddle on various numbers adds to the palette allowing Connolly to head to the badlands for some Tex-Mex stylings or add a back porch rusticism on occasion.
Armed thus, Connolly sets out his wares and it’s fair to say that each of the ten songs here is somewhat masterful. Aside from the lone cover of Loudon Wainwright’s I Suppose, here given a sympathetic country waltz treatment, Connolly tears down the walls of heartache with numbers such as I Hope You’re Unhappy and When The Loner Gets Lonely, the latter adorned only with guitar and accordion and a wonderful description of a barfly with only a hint of a back story. There’s some revved up rockabilly and western swing on the rollicking Neon Jail and Haunts Like This while the opener I Hope You’re Unhappy is in the grain of George Jones with Connolly’s vocals up there with The Possum. Do You Realise That Now utilises Guerra for its south of the border romanticism with Slow Burner also dipping into border territory. Connolly closes the album with a solo performance of I Should Have Closed The Book, another failed relationship song but evidence that he is a master of metaphor and simile, able to tackle age old country topics and spin a new take on them. The masterpiece here however is Fifteen Years, a country dirge with Dobro and fiddle ladling on the misery as Connolly weaves a tale as expertly as Texan masters such as Guy Clark. A wonderfully delicate and evocative recollection of tough memories it’s a song that would not be out of place on Robbie Fulks’ magnificent Upland Stories.
Nothin’ Unexpected is an excellent album that improves on Connolly’s debut while retaining the central thrust that he is championing the core values of country music. That he does it so well is welcome and hopefully a beacon for other UK singers to follow in his footsteps.