Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders – The Southern Sessions – Album Review
Gather ‘round the fire friends…lemme tell ya the tale of a true outlaw from the music-scene we love and share a new chapter in the saga of Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders. If you read these pages of ours on the regular, and we’ve been doing are job correctly, chances are you’re well-familiar with the gruff voice of the hero in this story by now – we’ve reviewed the music of Mr. Wild Billy Roberts and The Rough Riders several times throughout the years and been honored with the opportunity to listen to this entire project grow & evolve as time went on. As it turns out, being familiar with the history of the band & the music plays to your advantage when it comes to The Southern Sessions – not only will ya get a couple new cuts on this album, but you’ll get a bit of the history of their catalog mixed into the lineup too. A solid move on the part of this crew; as many of you out there with your own tunes can imagine, there comes a point where you feel you can bring more to a song, give it an update, or even bring it out all over again to get a certain tune the attention it perhaps deserved long ago, but for some reason never got. There could be plenty of reasons for bringing songs back…and ultimately, they’re all valid in some way of their own…sometimes it just comes down to knowing what you can currently do with your music and knowing that a song can have a better chance to thrive by the way you play it NOW. Time & distance can play a huge role when it comes to making music…sometimes you can look back on a tune and realize it had so much more potential that was left untapped, no matter how hard you might have felt like you nailed it at the time you recorded it. Bottom line is, be like Billy will ya? Don’t let that music you’ve made sit on the shelf for no good reason…get your caravans movin’ across the desert and fjord whatever rivers you gotta…get those tunes of yours out there. And if the world doesn’t immediately notice, or you later think you could make your music even better than it already is – hit it all again, give it a refresh or a remix or redo the entire thing from the ground up, but get that music out there where it belongs and push as hard as you can until you hear your songs echo from the windows on your street.
2020 is the year of hindsight after all isn’t it? Ain’t no harm in looking back on your way forward as you demonstrate how far you’ve come already. Make no mistake – this isn’t a ‘greatest hits’ record – though it may play that way for some listeners out there for sure; but really, this seems more like a collection of strong cuts from the Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders catalog that deserve the chance to be heard for one reason or another…or another! Some of them could easily make a ‘greatest hits’ lineup of this band’s songs if they wanna go that route one day…but as for right now, there might be titles you’ll recognize from past records, but each updated version you’ll hear on The Southern Sessions gives you the opportunity to form an all-new bond with these tunes. As in, they didn’t phone this in. They could have just schlepped down the old recordings, but they’ve chosen to add a lil’ spit & polish to these tracks from the past to make each song a new experience. And unless my ears deceive me, the opening track “HillBilly Blues” might be the only exception to that rule; the most recent single that we know of, released back in 2018 ahead of The Southern Sessions…it sounds like it’s pretty close to what I remember originally, but any changes between now & then could have been slight and could still exist. Still a solid cut from the catalog and a great opportunity to have “HillBilly Blues” appear on a full record, it starts The Southern Sessions on the right note and starts this journey with where we last left them off. No doubt that the immediate burst of bright, colorful sound and absolutely killer guitar riffs that rip through the lefts & rights alongside the inherent mix of wisdom & coolness in Wild Billy’s vocals on “HillBilly Blues” was a great way to get the energy up at the outset of the set-list with an immediate display of attention grabbing sound, trumpets blaring loud’n’proud, guaranteed to get you listenin.’
From that point on, as they move forward through the past, you’ll hear how much this band has grown. Honestly…a lot of that growth can be heard in particular, right in the main star of the show. Billy’s a much more confident and decisive front-man at this point in his career; where the earlier version of Roberts might have hesitated for a split-second, he’s now attacking his role with comfortable precision. You’ll notice that difference between his past & his present immediately with the changes made to a song like “No More Mr Nice Guy” – he’s got a much more melodically-driven tone to his vocals and the various changes to the instrumentation, like how the song boldly switches up around the 2:25 mark into some wicked slide-guitars goin’ on. If you’re familiar with the catalog of tunes from Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders, it’s pretty easy to distinguish the differences between the original and this updated version…if you’re not familiar with it already, then hey, right on, you get what’s arguably the better of the two versions as your first impression. I’d be interested in finding out more about this set-list and what inspired Billy to bring back these particular songs. Some of these choices make natural sense, like “No More Mr Nice Guy” does…the fit of the new sound/vibe works flawlessly, and there’s a more organic smoothness to the entire song overall, which you’ll find is the case in how many of these tunes shined-up for this new record. Great combination of tones between the harmonica and sliding guitars as the song heads for its instrumental ending in there for ya as well…some people out there that dig their musicianship will probably even lean towards this part of the tune being its strongest moments – “No More Mr Nice Guy” has a lil’ somethin’ for everyone, but doesn’t give away everything that goes on to make this record full of re-recordings as special as it is all at once. It probably wouldn’t have been my first choice if I was looking at the potential tracks to bring back if I’m being honest – but I can’t argue with the results either – they’re sounding great, the swagger’s on-point through “No More Mr Nice Guy” and I dig that. I suppose by comparison, you’ll find larger chances in the adaptation of the tunes from the originals to these new recordings being taken later on in the lineup…”No More Mr Nice Guy” is kind of like the track you fully expect Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders to have nailed down, and they do.
On “My Baby Gone Cold,” those changes & differences become so apparent, so quickly. For one, you’ll find that, even in comparison to the original, the emphasis is much more slanted towards the piano leading the way through this tune this time around. Which is…A-OK with me folks – it sounds fantastic on “My Baby Gone Cold” and keeps the spark of inspiring sound intact from beginning to end. When it comes to the vocals…jeez man…not quite sure what’s happening over in the Roberts camp these days, but this is a genuinely exceptional job from the man on the mic. I’m sure I’m often described his vocals as gruff or gravelly over the years many times…and while that’s not entirely inaccurate, it’s songs like this version of “My Baby Gone Cold” that reveal just how well Billy can deliver the goods when it comes to the tone of his voice in a melody too. Lots of great choices being made now, like how the layers come out in the harmonies…you get a solid, more confident lead-performance from Billy when he’s on his own in the verses, but you can also hear just how much the added background vocals in the chorus strengthen the sweetness of the overall sound. Whether Roberts would have had the courage & confidence to go after this much melody at the beginning of his career is hard to say for sure; I believe getting to the point he’s at now, approaching the music like he is on the microphone throughout this record, has always been the intention from day one. I think it’s taken some time, experimentation, and testing along the way – but at this point in listening to “My Baby Gone Cold” and the entire set-list of songs throughout The Southern Sessions, it’s more than clear that Billy has found the sweet-spot where he’s dialed right into what works and knows exactly how to get his maximum potential fully realized.
Same applies to “Special” when it comes to the vocal evolution of Roberts and how much you can hear it so clearly on this record in these updated variations of past tunes. These past three tunes have all come from the album The Last Of The Originals, which is pretty much right where we jumped aboard the bandwagon back in 2014. No lie – have a listen…recognize the difference y’all; Billy didn’t necessarily have just the one gear back then, but he had a spot where he was comfortable, and kinda rooted himself there on that first record – hearing him take a take like “Not That Special” and give this the performance it deserved on the mic was a testament to just how far he’s come as an artist…this is 100% compelling to listen to. I dig the original too mind you, but now for decisively different reasons…I like that there’s a more lively melody to this new variation, despite the fact that I really thought the more desolate energy also worked for the previous version. Definitely some of my favorite solo-work and guitars, mood and atmosphere, of any of the songs on this record…hearing “Not That Special” was a great reminder of the songwriting that’s always made Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders appealing to me, and another solid example of how the stakes have been raised to make these new versions even more engaging than the originals. I mean, I’d love to say ‘different’ – but in my opinion, a lot of what BR&TheRRs are doing now are moves this band likely couldn’t have made in its beginning stages…which is all the more reason to make a record like this one. It’s clear that these songs had more in the tank and more to offer us all – it’s here on The Southern Sessions that you really get to hear that the ideas have been there all along.
Things got more involved for Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders on the second record Go By Myself – and you’ll hear the difference in the versions of the tunes from that album that show up on The Southern Sessions all somewhat dial-back what was a much bigger sound in the originals cut from what was probably their most Rock-based record overall. So songs like “Seen It All Before” don’t come out so much as like, y’know…a tweak or two here & there, so much as almost seem like a complete overhaul in the final results. The structure’s always intact from what you’ll know in the past recordings more or less, but the overall sound is vastly different…and arguably, could even be considered a hell of a lot more accessible. I think any fan of R.E.M. should find something to love about this version of “Seen It All Before” – there’s a lot of the legendary band’s early-sound in this vibe, and it’s a suit that Billy Roberts seems to wear extremely well. Even the glow of the organ and the guitars will remind you of R.E.M. at points, same as the surge into the chorus…and of course, given that that’s my favorite band of all-time, you won’t be hearing any complaints from me in reference to this comparison I’ve made. That’s keeping great company as far as my ears are concerned. Shout-out to Tanner Lindsay as well…he’s put a ton of work into the production of this record to get everything standing out as brilliantly as it does, in addition to taking on a valued role as a musician on the album as well, lending his talents to the guitar on many of these tracks. Loved the warm glow of the organ at the core of the melody in this song, loved the crisp energy of the drums, and I think Roberts really reveals some of his smoothest hooks in the chorus of “Seen It All Before.” The vocals, lyrics, & music of this track pull you in through sheer curiosity & intrigue – there’s a more Pop-inspired sound fueling the hooks of this version that suits it all really strongly.
Songs like “Kayla” and the version that exists on The Southern Sessions are the very damn reason you make a record like this and attempt to improve on the past…because this is full proof it can be done. When you listen to it, you can obviously appreciate the writing…even if you didn’t know the original, you can tell there had to have always been a song here…but even if you are familiar with it, you gotta admit, this came out as a serious highlight with its shiny new skin. I know I’ve commented on this several times already in this review, but if he’s gonna keep on showing just how much he’s personally improved as a vocalist, then time & time again I’m gonna point it out too – it’s literally and audibly songs like “Kayla” that most confirm just how much more focus Roberts has on the microphone now. Because this is pretty much magic to my ears dear readers, dear friends…I’m absolutely in love with this version of “Kayla” and think the way that the piano & guitars respond to the vocals is freakin’ sheer magnificence. Having the distance on Billy’s vocals in the chorus is genius and sounds excellent, hearing the clarity in his tone & melody and how much more life there is in this performance speaks SO MUCH on behalf of the passion he’s found for his art and the effort he’s put in to finding the missing piece of the puzzle he was searching for. Because it’s performances like this that make that difference…it’s what makes a song that was good before turn into a great one – there’s not a doubt in my mind that he’s elevated this tune. Like…I know I write a lot…but I’m basically fuckin’ speechless when it comes to how incredible “Kayla” is – it’s like…good lord…it’s like the best of what I love in a band like The National, with the heaviness in the emotion, atmosphere & poetic design of a song as bold & powerful as R.E.M.’s “Country Feedback” at the same time. As with all years here at sleepingbagstudios, I anticipate another 365 days in 2020 to be full of great tunes – but what I can tell ya, is that it’s likely going to be a while before I feel as strongly attached to another song as much as I am to “Kayla” – I can’t say enough about this, it’s award-worthy. I’d likely go as far as to say that this updated version of “Kayla” not only capitalizes completely on the highly evocative & sensory experience this song has always had the potential for, but that the results captured here on this recording for The Southern Session might be the best I’ve ever heard from Billy.
I gotta say…I love it when a new Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders record comes out because you can always hear something new happening inside the music and the direction each album takes. Like any of you out there, I’m just as fallible when it comes to digging on an original versus a new version of a song – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Has nothing to do with a song being bad or good – chances are if you like a song, you still like it in most of its forms – but your own personal preference will always play a role in what you like better, or what you might feel would have suited a song better. Kind of like how the Unplugged series compared to the original recordings, you following me? The Southern Sessions has that similar kind of uniqueness to their approach and to its appeal when it comes to the differences in between each version of these tunes. So for me, a song like “Gone To The Dogs” was always well served by the grit & gusto it came with…and I’d likely say that earlier version on Go By Myself is probably still my favorite of the two, without necessarily taking any points away from this new variation. Love the way the piano comes out, love the way that the chorus comes out vocally, and really, there’s actually nothing about this version I don’t really dig on…all I’m saying here is that this particular tune not only gives you a good cut for the present-day version of BR&TheRRs, but it also again proves that the past catalog of tunes has a ton of gems this new record will remind you to go back & spin again. Personally, when it came to this new version, I really loved how the piano came out; I think it reveals that the hooks you’ll find in the music of Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders can often be just as strong as the ones you’ll find coming from the microphone. You might like it more gritty in its original form when it comes to the sound of the overall vibe like I do, or you might like it more stripped-back & softer like you’ll find “Gone To The Dogs” here on The Southern Sessions…either way, you’re on relatively solid ground and not likely to be disappointed by either variation; it was a solid tune then, & it’s still one now.
Where things get interesting in comparing the two versions is in a tune like “Driving” – I’d imagine that listeners would likely have a tougher time deciding which of the two versions they might like more, because they’re about as different as any two cuts between records could be with the same tune. I think…for me…I’m all about this new one. Don’t get me wrong…loved the saxophone that was a part of the original, but the entire low-key & humble vibe that comes with this sparkling new acoustic version definitely warrants a serious shout-out. “Driving” becomes oddly beautiful in this style…it’s still got Billy’s attitude in the lyricism intact, and the hazy melody of the vocals makes this experience feel like it’s warped & melting around you in the sweetest of ways. The contrast between theme, sound, vocals, and lyricism here all counts for something significant…”Driving” ends up becoming this bizarre & quaint, little & sweet, isolated & intimate oddity on The Southern Sessions that’s a genuine moment of pure chill. Even as Billy will “tell all these fuckers where to go,” you can’t help but notice the dreamy sound surrounding him at all times! That might be as direct as he’ll get on this, but you’ll notice that “Driving” is also an excellent vehicle to get his lyricism to ya…as subtle and sweet as it may appear – and often is to be fair – Billy’s also at his observant, questioning, & insightful best throughout the details, imagery, and themes that roam through the streets of “Driving,” and puts together a memorable tale that sticks with ya. With what’s probably the least amount of ingredients to create the sound…couple guitars and a bass-line, slight hint of piano in the shadows of the melody I think…a lil’ percussion…backup vocals…looking at it on paper actually makes it feel like there’s more in there than it feels like there is as you listen. Something about the final twenty-seconds or so feels like “Driving” might have been just about to go off the rails timing-wise towards the end of this tune, but right before things get outta hand and we start “Driving” over a cliff with Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders, they wrap it up tight.
Now…I’d have to double-check, but I seem to remember “With You” being one of the real stand-outs from the original record way back in 2014. Listen to the way this gem came out this time around will ya? Listen to that bridge yo! Or how about the solo right afterwards? The stunning beauty in the sliding guitar notes that adorn the background, or the vibrant lead when it takes over…the exceptional melody in Billy’s vocals as he heads into the chorus of this tune…everything stacks up perfect here. My gut tells me these are still highly single-worthy hooks to this very day – “With You” is a song that’s gonna hold up for a long, long time, and appeal to a great many ears of the masses out there. For those out there that believe in the notion of great songwriting comes from putting in the effort and exploring the depths of a song for everything it’s got to offer, “With You” becomes a blueprint on how to do it right. You see kiddos…Billy believes in the fundamentals – songwriting that comes with all the bells and whistles…those pesky things that get in the way of modern-day music, like pre-choruses, instrumentation & solos, letting a song build-up and tell a story, BRIDGES…as in, we’re not just talking about verse/chorus/verse cuts – he’s been putting more than that into his material from day one, and “With You” proves that. Hearing this song come out so clear in its sincerity & sweetness on this new version was a real treat for the heart & mind…it was like reconnecting with an old friend, but better. Years later down the road now, with two albums past when The Last Of The Originals record originally came out, and a whole set-list of songs on the most recent album Greenbah that were left out of the lineup on The Southern Sessions – “With You” is still a true gem and standout cut in the catalog of Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders. What is that with the stunning guitars sliding around? Is that just another guitar in the highest part of the melody – or is that a mandolin? Whatever it is, I loved it…it’s a small fraction of the song, but it really adds a serious amount of blissful charm alongside the gentle piano & acoustic-driven sound.
“I Was Young” gets the downhome treatment, giving this cut a quaint & comfortable vibe in the air as Billy Roberts gives you the details on what life looks like from the outside of where ‘home’ used to be. Supported by a subtle mix of acoustic guitar, bass, drums, and an outstanding violin playing the role of the lead on “I Was Young,” Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders strip back the sound to end The Southern Sessions on a song that really has that southern flavor to it as they finish the record conclusively. Probably another example of a song from his catalog I might not have expected him to revisit…but I should know better…Billy’s always found ways to surprise me throughout the years. “I Was Young” has everything it needs in its minimal ingredients, and delivers a slice of Indie-Folk that hits the mark – especially as an ending to the album. He’s “fought the good fight to the end” and battled hard in the mellowest of ways to give these songs a valid second go around…and he’s come out with a serious WIN with the overall results. Not only does it completely reveal, confirm, and prove just how much BR&TheRRs have continually evolved over the course of their career, it also shines a bright light on the fact that where there at right now, could very well be nearing the peak of their prime. You couldn’t possibly ask for more than what you’ll find on The Southern Sessions in my opinion…I think Billy Roberts has shown impressive growth from year to year as we’ve been listening…but this deep dive into the past to polish up some great tunes from the catalog was a really, really damn good move on their part.
Because this didn’t just sound like another step forward for Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders – this entire record & experience felt like they leapt over a freakin’ football field in a single bound in terms of their evolution and revealing what they can accomplish as a band today. Things really came together in all the right ways for our outlaw hero of independent music this time around…Wild Bill and his crew of ace talent should be extremely proud of the effort they’ve put into the songs on The Southern Sessions.
Find music by Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders at Spotify here: https://open.spotify.com/artist/1wC8JHZE7uERUK1qajiL4e
Join the thousands of bands & artists reviewed at sleepingbagstudios by clicking here!