Been listening to the Cocaine & Rhinestones podcast and wonder where you can find some modern honky-tonk music like they used to make back in the mid-20th Century? Or maybe you just love the stuff and can’t seem to find it on the radio. Well, it’s hiding in Americana, and it’s made by the likes of cliff Westfall.
Westfall is a Kentucky native but he’s been based in New York for some time now. As he points out on his website and as any music historian worth his salt knows, honky-tonk music was born and bred in urban areas where former Southerners moved in their quest for paying work. Bakersfield, Chicago, Tulsa, Cleveland, New York, you name it, any place can harbor a country music scene.
Baby You Win is music you can dance to, whether a fast shuffle or a slow waltz. Electric guitars and pedal steel and high harmonies. Sad songs that make you laugh and funny songs that make you cry, quick with a turn of phrase that brings you up short. Westfall seems to have all of these things in his blood, as he rolls out this dozen songs seemingly as easy as breathing.
He’s quick out of the gate with the rocking shuffle “It Hurt Her To Hurt Me,” in which he lies to himself about his former girlfriend’s motives in dumping him. The title track finds him throwing in the towel in a relationship in which he’s clearly overmatched.
What’s a honky-tonk album without at least one song in praise of booze? The guy in “Off The Wagon” finds his relationship has gotten boring since he and his girl got clean and sober, so he suggests they, well, you know. Fall off that wagon.
Lovable and not-so-lovable losers populate these songs like rats in an alley. Like the guy who brags about heading quickly toward “The End Of The Line.” It’s a typical tale of a guy whose daddy was a wild one and who grows up the same way, not knowing better than to brag about it.
All of those are fast shuffles perfectly suited to Westfall’s twangy tenor vocals. Scott Metzger and Graham Norwood play a couple of electric guitars, of the solid-body Telecaster-type if I’m not mistaken, sometimes dueling and sometimes in unison, with Dan Iead adding sweet pedal steel licks at appropriate times.
It’s not all driving, rocking shuffles, though. Of course not. There’s the loungy, louche and nearly lewd “Sweet Tooth,” with those guitars tuned to jazz. The sad waltz-time love song “A Lie If You Must,” with gorgeous harmony vocals from Barbara Endes, is cut from a gospel or soul template. “I’ll take the truth if you think I can take it,” they sing in this sweet sad duet. “But I’ll take a lie if you must.” Probably my favorite on this album.
The other slow tunes are more in line with the honky-tonk spirit, a little bit of George Jones and a little bit of Roger Miller. Like “Till The Right One Comes Along,” with its tinkling piano and woozy guitar, and those oh-so-cynical lines: “If you still can’t understand why I’m you’re kind of man, just let me love you ’till the right one comes along.”
Baby You Win has sharp production by Bryce Goggin and Norwood, and it was knocked together pretty quickly in a Brooklyn studio, so it never sounds over-produced or over-thought. And of course great cover art that looks like something out of about 1962.
Cliff Westfall and crew make great honky-tonk music on this album. Perfect for a dance and a drink or two on a Saturday night.
(Cliff Westfall, 2018)