Randy McAllister and the Scrappiest Band in the Motherland deliver a dozen memorable songs to delight on Gristle to Gold.
Randy McAllister is a talented songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist. He was born in Novice, Texas (small town in East Texas – population 139 at the 2010 census) and his Lone Star State roots run five generations deep. Randy’s father sang and played drums for a group called The Flames; an ironic name considering his primary “put food on the table” job was a firefighter. Randy grew up listening to a myriad of musical genres thanks to his father.
Early on he honed his drum skills, again with an assist from his dad. He would later pick up the intracacies of blowing the blues harp while serving in the U.S. Navy stationed in Massachusetts. Randy frequented the Boston area blues bars and profited from harp tips courtesy of “Earring” George Mayweather. Mayweather received instruction from the legendary Chicago harp master Little Walter and he played on J.B. Hutto’s first recordings.
Gristle to Gold is the title of the new release on Reaction Records by Randy McAllister and the Scrappiest Band in the Motherland. It demonstrates that McAllister is a skilled craftsman in the art of songwriting. He combines first-rate melodies with valued lyrics. He is prolific at it, with about a dozen albums residing under his belt.
On the new release Randy has enlisted the services of a slew of young sharp Texas musicians offering them a chance to gain valuable experience in the recording studio. They reciprocate by giving McAllister a shot of youthful exuberance.
Guitarist Rob Dewan is the only musician, besides McAllister, to be included on each of the twelve new original compositions contained on Gristle to Gold, but the album’s cohesiveness belies that fact. Rob Dewan’s presence and contributions are strongly felt throughout Gristle, second to only McAllister himself.
Texas is well known as a vibrant melting pot of music with thriving music scenes in Houston, Dallas, and Austin. Randy McAllister’s brand of music is hard to categorize. It could be deemed Texas Soul/Blues, but to be truthful it is a great deal more. Randy is a superbly soulful singer with an ample vocal range who sings each song with legitimate conviction.
The opening song on Gristle to Gold is titled “The Kid With the Really Old Soul.” It is a hard driving slice of Southern Blues/Rock in which McAllister immediately conveys his musical prowess by way of communicative vocals and dynamic blues harp. The lyrics describe just what the title implies; a young person who has tastes and savvy beyond his tender years. References of classic artists that this youngster enjoys abound in the song (Bob Dylan, Blind Faith, Otis Redding, Joe Tex, Neil Young, The Beatles, Texas Tornados, Reverend Gary Davis and Blind Willie McTell). I venture to trust that this song is semi-autobiographic for McAllister, as are a few other songs on Gristle. As the wise professors always advise ….. write what you know.
Another song with a driving beat, “The Push,” is fortified by drummer Kevin Shermerhorn and bassist Matt Higgins and includes some tasty guitar from Rob Dewan. McAllister’s gospel testifying vocal, when paired with supportive backing vocals from Andrea Wallace, seal the rousing deal. The joyous Texas shuffle, “Something That Don’t Cost a Dime,” features stinging guitar, wailing blues harp and stirring vocals from McAllister and Wallace. The vocals act as flavorsome garnish to drape the largely instrumental jamming going on inside the song’s marrow.
Two of my favorite songs on Gristle to Gold come back-to-back as song number five and six. “I’m Like A Boomerang” features an ultra-smooth McAllister vocal and a strong back beat by drummer Sean Curry. The organ work by Carson Wagner holds a skating rink feel that augments the finished puzzle with another tightly fitting jigsaw piece. Dual guitars by Mike Morgan and Rob Dewan are richly advantageous without being overly ostentatious. The lyrics engage a topic not unknown to the Blues; the feeling of love’s ball and chain effect. The following song, “You Lit the Dynamite,” begins with the sizzle of a long fuse and repeated sang “boom, boom, booms” are detonated to great effect. The acts of lying and cheating in relationships and the subsequent consequences, a frequent topic in blues songs, are presented perfectly here. It’s a snappy song that is well conceived, and well played. A big thumbs-up goes out to drummer Eric Smith and bassist Mike Morgan for their contributions on this track.
The shortest song (just over two minutes) on Gristle is “Bowling Pin.” McAllister aggressively blows his trusty mouth harp while Dewar adds electric slide and some guitar licks pulled directly from “Polk Salad Annie.” Higgins’ bass guitar and Mcurley’s drums are relentless as hungry woodpeckers. The lyrics keep repeating “I’m still standing tho’ I probably shouldn’t be;” hence the bowling pin title.
The acoustic “Someone’s Been There” is a gospel-tinged tune with measured pace and heartfelt McAllister vocals. Carson Wagner’s piano provides the backbone as Dewan furnishes fine bottleneck guitar shadings to this melody. The uplifting lyrics relate the universal truth that no matter the extent of pain and suffering that life might deal you; others have walked a similar path. The contrast, due to absence of drums and bass, serves in giving the song a reflective aura.
The horn duo of Jeff Robbins on sax and Steve Howard on trumpet infuse plenty of punch to “Glass Half Full.” The effect is somewhat akin to the vibrancy that the brass section of The Asbury Jukes accomplished for Southside Johnny. The tune’s melody is excellent and Randy’s voice sounds growingly better with each repeated listen.
Another standout track is “A Whole Lot Of Nothin’.” This wonderful blues exercise shows McAllister’s talent for writing songs with limited words yielding massive explanations. He exclaims in the song he’s got nothin’ but trouble from his woman, but her magnetic charge keeps pulling him back to her side. Both the bluesy guitar and organ are exciting and the bass and drum rhythm section are tight as can be. The refrain of nothin’, nothin’, nothin’ is repeated enough to guarantee the song’s earwig status.
“Crappy Food, No Sleep, A Van and a Bunch of Songs” was the title of McAllister’s last release. As you might expect it depicts the life on the road that most struggling musicians face. The lyrics paint the picture perfectly and include “changed more tires than the Goodyear guy, stayed in parking lots when I didn’t have a dime, living the dream, but the dream ain’t mine.” Slide guitar, barrelhouse piano, and Randy’s howling harp are ever-present.
McAllister serves up a wonderful loving tribute to Blues legend John Lee Hooker with his song “Hey Hooker.” A few other legends (Muddy, Wolf, Slim, and Sam) are mentioned but the focus is on John Lee and a few of his hits (Boom Boom and Huckle Up Baby, and I’m Bad Like Jesse James). This is another autobiographic tale for Randy as he tells of being turned on to the power of the Blues while listening in his bedroom on his Winthrop Hi-Fi and his life being shaped by the sounds. Piano, guitar and harmonica again play a dominant role.
Randy McAllister and the Scrappiest Band in the Motherland deliver a dozen memorable songs to delight on Gristle to Gold. This is one fun album that will creep deeply into your consciousness with ninja-like stealth. Recommended.