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.
We mentioned Cincinnati band The Tillers a week ago and this reminded us of another Tri State crew, Magnolia Mountain and the fact that we’ve been sitting on their latest release for far too long so time to unearth and examine it. In fact this exhumation from the pending pile unearthed two albums, Magnolia Mountain’s Beloved and a solo effort by the band’s front man Mark Utley, Four Chords and a Lie. Both albums were released simultaneously back in late summer and one might be surprised by Utley’s work rate if you didn’t know that his last two Magnolia Mountain albums were effectively doubles with 2012’s Town and Country released on a good old fashioned two disc vinyl edition.
We reviewed Town and Country calling it a smorgasbord of delights gathering together as it did “fiddle-laced romps, slide-driven rockers and devilish blues moans.” It’s diversity was a strength but Utley appears to have opted here for a leaner approach with the country side represented by his solo effort allowing the band to slink down south and simmer in a southern stew.
Beloved comes across as very much in the Muscle shoals vein with Utley sharing and at times delegating vocal duties to his co- singers Melissa English and Renee Frye. Their harmonies and duets recall the likes of Delaney and Bonnie or Kristofferson and Coolidge while the band serve up a funky and muscular beat that reminded us of Sal Valentino’s Stoneground with a hint of the Allmans’ thrown in for good measure. While Utley and guitarist Jeff Vanover play some fine licks and occasional gutsy solos its keyboard player Dusty Bryant who flows through the album whether on electric piano or funky organ. Altogether the sound is pretty much rooted in a seventies groove while the predominant theme is of break up and heart break. The peak is achieved on the tearjerker Ain’t Enough of Anything, a slow southern blues with achingly good guitar solos and a stellar female vocal singing “‘cos I can’t find a thing to help with the pain, no whisky or weed, pills or cocaine.” Lonesome Train is another downer of a song this time with Utley bemoaning his fate as his sirens call behind him and the band slinks along buoyed some great organ playing. Going Out of My Mind is more up-tempo but again the band strike a fine groove with the keyboard sparkling as the harmonies fly. With a memorable hook and a loose arrangement this one sounds like it could become a stage favourite with plenty of room for stretching out.
There’s a couple of rockers here as well which suffer in comparison to the more soulful numbers but the opener Midnight Man with its crunchy guitar pretty much sets out the agenda as Utley sings “I like to go out drinking, I like to go downtown, I like those pretty women, I like to turn their heads around” as the band limber up and begin to growl. Toss in a Bo Diddley beat on Not That Much which celebrates a love them and lose them philosophy (from a female point of view) and you have pretty much a set which begs to be heard live in a hot and crowded bar or club.
Speaking of bars the opening bars of Utley’s solo album, Four chords and a Lie, set the listener squarely in a honky tonk dive as twangy guitar, barrelhouse piano and pedal steel try to sweep the cobwebs away. Although billed as a solo album there’s a good degree of miscegenation with Magnolia Mountain here as Renee Frye and Jeff Vanover appear on all of the songs. The album is just about 50/50 between stripped down efforts with Ricky Nye adding keyboards to the Mountain trio and the full blown honky tonk experience delivered by his country band Bulletville featuring Jim Gaines on pedal steel. The “solo” songs range from the sinister Little Black Dress where Utley is on the prowl for a bad bad woman to share his lust, delivered with just the right amount of sleaze and menace to Blackbird On the Wire which unfortunately has a strained and unfinished feel to it. He redeems this with the final song Say A Prayer For Me which could easily have been written and delivered by Bobby Whitlock on the Derek & the Dominos album. The Bulletville songs are all excellent with alcohol and bars featuring well to the fore. Waiting On Ruby Raye has Utley salivating over a favourite saloon singer while Not All Right Together is an almost perfect tale of a drunken love tryst. Gaines’ pedal steel shines here as it does on the tearful, beerful lament that is Nothing But Time, a classic country tune that had it been released in the sixties would have had the nation crying in their beers.
A Cincinnati based eight piece country rock combo Magnolia Mountain are very much the brainchild of Mark Utley, a big man with a big sound and judging by this a big talent. Singer, guitar and banjo player and writer of all but two of the 18 songs here one senses that Utley is steeped in rock, country and blues with the result that the album is a smorgasbord of delights. Fiddle laced romps sit side by side with slide driven rockers and devilish blues moans, an eclectic mix indeed and it goes some way to explain the dichotomy of the album’s title.
The country side is evident from the start with Black Mollie where a rustic fiddle leads into a Celtic influenced jaunt with banjo and mandolin sprinkled throughout. One Waking Moment continues with this mandolin and fiddle country style but with a smoother approach and some nice Bakersfield type electric guitar flourishes.The Old Ways ripples along with some fine fiddle soloing from Kathy Woods that is spinechilling. This is a thrilling song that sounds as old as the hills and ably demonstrates Utley’s ability to capture in his lyrics age-old worries. He brings this bang up to date however on the tremendous Hand of Man, a great folk song that rails against the despoliation of the country by mining companies who are “greedy for that coal” and the consequences of their greed.
“White Star Holler was my home. Shared the crops that we had grown, Shared the water from our well, Shared the life we loved so well, Coal men brought the mountain down, Leaked their poison underground, Mother, neighbour, friend, and son, Cancer took them, every one.”
Delivered with a fiery passion and with some great harmony singing by Melissa English and Renee Frye the song blazes with a righteous indignation fuelled by the real life protest against mountain top mining in the Appalachians that led Utley to compile a protest album Music For The Mountains. The sweeter All My Numbered Days runs like a clear mountain stream and is reminiscent of John Hartford with its country pop sensibility.
Back in the grittier side of town life Magnolia Mountain prove themselves to be capable of some fine urban grooves and bluesy slinks. Baby Let’s Pretend is like a blue-collar version of The Mavericks while Set On Fire grinds its loins lustily. The Southern soul groove of Rainmaker is rousing and sexy with an infectious dance feel while The Devil We Know is an impressionistic and spooky film noire set to music. Guest vocalist Lydia Loveless adds some fire and brimstone to the fast paced and slide guitar driven duet that is Shotgun Divorce where Utley and Loveless toss insults and threats as if they were trailer park descendants of Lee Hazlwood and Nancy Sinatra.
There’s ’s a temptation to conjure up the word “epic” to describe this but this is partly because it arrived as a beautiful double vinyl album package and compared to the usual CD review copies it just seems, well, big. While I’d recommend the vinyl it is available in digital form. Whatever format you go for it’s a great album.