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August 1, 2013

Discover cowboy harmonies, guitar twang on ‘Songs Older Than Pappy’

Music lovers won’t find this rich blend of melodies, fiddle notes, cowboy harmonies and guitar twang on contemporary radio stations.

They won’t locate a similar collection of songs that pre-date the Great Depression on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Adventurous sound aficionados, though, will discover all of those virtues on “Songs Older Than Pappy,” the latest album from John England and the Western Swingers. The six-man Nashville, Tenn., band opens the gate on a lost generation of songs written before the Western Swingers’ octogenarian fiddler — Gene “Pappy” Merritts — was born. The sextet are masters of a Western swing genre that brought packed crowds to dance clubs across the American Southwest in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, and made legends of singers such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, and bands such as Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings revived its popularity in the 1970s.

England, a Terre Haute native, and the Western Swingers carry that mantle in the 21st century with gusto. Their fourth album enhances their track record.

From the opening “yee haw” on the disc’s first track, “Pecos Bill,” the collection elicits smiles. That initial song gives the CD a strong start as the band members trade lead vocals around the crafty narration of the exploits of Pecos and then join together on tight, campfire-cracklin’ harmonies on its “yipee-ay-yay, yipee-ay-yo” chorus. “Pecos Bill” and three new original tracks carry an invisible asterisk for not actually being “Older Than Pappy.” Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers immortalized “Pecos Bill” in the 1948 animated Disney film, “Melody Time.” The Swingers’ 2013 version “is our ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’” England said.

England knows how a musical tour de force is constructed. The Terre Haute South Vigo High School grad studied music at Indiana University, played guitar and sang in Loretta Lynn’s touring band, backed the Pointer Sisters, folk singer Carrie Newcomer, and a New York City duo by Lynn and White Stripes rocker Jack White. England and the Swingers have performed at the Grand Ole Opry, New York’s Lincoln Center and for the past 12 years served as the Monday night band at Robert’s Western World in Nashville.

Their experience shines through on “Songs Older Than Pappy.” The highlights include England’s smooth vocal on “Shortnin’ Bread,” “Yellow Rose of Texas” and the spritely “Goodbye Liza Jane,” the sentimental 1917 “Smiles” (sung by “Pappy” Merritts), “Drums on the Cumberland” (featuring solos by drummer Walter Hartman, who co-wrote the number with England), and “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” (inspired by a classic rendition by Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers). “Yodelin’ Days” stirs together blues and yodeling by steel guitarist Tommy Hannum, the song’s writer.

The songs may be older than most listeners, but England and the Western Swingers illuminate the tunes’ timelessness.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

The details

• The latest album by John England and the Western Swingers is available online at www.westernswingers.com.

• The release marks the band’s fourth CD following “Open That Gate” (2008), “Thanks a Lot” (2004) and “Swinging Broadway” (2002).

• England is a Terre Haute native and graduate of Terre Haute South Vigo High School and Indiana University. His band is based in Nashville, Tenn.

 

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