Country music needs a solid kick in the pants. And Tommy Townsend is the right guy to deliver it.
It’s happened before, you know. Forty-odd years ago an earlier gang of troublemakers had to knock some sense into the slicked-up boot scooters who had taken over the dance floor. Their names are legend now — Waylon, Willie, Kris. Their impact revitalized a genre that had lost touch with its rowdier roots.
But time passes and once again, to borrow a phrase from Ol’ Waylon, we need a change. That’s Tommy’s cue to sling on his guitar, crank it up and … well, the title of his new album says it all.
Turn Back The Clock is rough around the edges, full of attitude and proud of it. It draws a line in the dirt and dares us to cross it, to leave behind the weary tropes of commercial country and reclaim the muscle and spirit of the outlaw era.
Townsend’s connection to these forebears dates back to a family vacation when he was about 13. While driving to Panama City, Florida from northeastern Georgia, his uncle popped in an 8-track of the album Ol’ Waylon; by the time they reached the beach, Townsend was hooked.
Shortly after that, his parents took him to hear Jennings perform live, at Lanier Land Music Park. After the show, Mom and Dad talked their way past the Hell’s Angels security guards and into the backstage area, where he introduced his son to the man who would become Tommy’s inspiration and mentor.
Townsend was soon welcomed into the Jennings fold. He befriended Waylon’s wife Jessi Colter, their children and members of the Waylors, whose bassist Jerry Bridges and Waylon himself co-produced Townsend’s first solo session. They took him out on the road and even brought him up onstage now and then to play with the band. Tommy and Waylon spent time alone together too, talking about lessons learned from life and conveyed through songs.
These experiences were invaluable — and, as Townsend grew beyond his formative years, sometimes a hurdle too. “People still think of me as the young Waylon Jennings,” he says. “It took me a while to get past that and start finding out who I am as an artist.”
That process accelerated in his late teens as he began writing songs. While he doesn’t deny Jennings’ impact -- in fact, he acknowledges it gratefully — Townsend used it to nurtured his own artistry. These two facts of his musical life run separately: Since 2008 he has honored his musical hero by singing with Waymore’s Outlaws, whose lineup includes former Jennings sidekicks Bridges on bass, Richie Albright on drums and steel guitarist Fred Newell. In 2014 they hit the road, opening for Waylon’s son Shooter Jennings and then backing him through his set as well.
The more time they spent together on the road, the more Shooter recognized his friend’s uniqueness and sensed that he was ready to step out from his Waylon shadow. “He heard that I did his dad’s songs in my own way,” Townsend says. “That’s what Shooter liked about what I was doing with the band. Jessi Colter told me the same thing: ‘You’re not trying to sound like Waylon. You’re doing the songs in your own way.
After a series of shows, Shooter expressed an interest in producing an album on Townsend focused on Tommy’s electric rhythm playing. They began gathering songs, beginning with Brandi Carlisle’s “The Eye,” which Jennings heard as a great vehicle for Townsend’s voice. By December they had assembled a diverse list of originals and covers, unified by Townsend’s ability to deliver them with passion and insight, and started recording what is now Turn Back The Clock.
On this exceptional, much-needed solo debut, Townsend turns Steve Young’s “Renegade Picker” into a swaggering, hard-hitting honky-tonk anthem. By changing the lyric to reflect a male point of view, Townsend personalizes “Drinkin’” as no artists have other than its composer, Holly Williams. The magic of Gordon Lightfoot’s immortal “Sundown” deepens in a new, bluesy interpretation.
Townsend’s writing chops shine on two cuts. Heat simmers throughout his sensuous “Longest Day Of Summer” from the opening line: “Steam rises off the highway after a summer rain. She’s burnin’ up beside me, wiping the sweat away.” And more than any other song on Turn Back The Clock, “Plug The Jukebox Back In” spells out Townsend’s diagnosis for all that ails country music nowadays: “It’s an endangered species, a new dying breed, replaced by computers, iPods and CDs … Let’s welcome the future without losing the past.”
Turn Back the Clock comes together on the closing tune, a recreation of Waylon’s courtly, achingly romantic “Belle Of The Ball.” “I put several guitar tracks down, then Barny Robertson, who played with Waylon at the height of his career, played that same electric piano sound he used on the original. It was just me and Barny. When I played it for Shooter over my phone, he fell in love with it.”
And so it is, a perfect return to where Townsend began, to learning from the masters in order to chart his way across a landscape thirsty for musical nourishment. “I wanted Turn Back The Clock to do what Waylon did for me … and Conway Twitty, Vern Gosdin, Keith Whitley and Hank Junior. Take all of them, add a little Willie, throw them in a pot, cook ‘em up and what you get is me.”
A feast for the ears and for our country soul.