Country music, maybe even more so than pop music, has long been the province of solo acts. There’s no Beatles and Stones; it’s Willie and Waylon and Hank and Dolly and Loretta. Given that touring is the backbone of making a career in country music, there are literally hundreds--shit, thousands--of unsung heroes, rank-and-file band members who backed every country legend since Hank Williams started moaning his songs in a radio station. Some of them get recognized--Rest in Power to Scotty Moore, Elvis’ guitarist who invented the power chord--but mostly, they are nameless and faceless, introduced during a slower number during the show, and forgotten by most fans, since they often aren’t able to put out music of their own.
Until TX Jelly, the members of Texas Gentlemen might have been doomed to that same slipstream of country music history. The band’s members have backed up everyone from Nikki Lane and Kris Kristofferson to Shakey Graves and Leon Bridges, and a couple years ago, bandleader Beau Bedford started a loose public jam session that invited as many as 40-50 different musicians to sit in and play music. The jam sessions led to the Gents deciding to head to FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, to have “record studio summer camp,” which lead them to record TX Jelly, their loose, ambling, country-fried debut. There are few albums this year that are as fun to spend time with; you end up feeling like you’re at a summer barbecue and a recording session is happening as entertainment.
TX Jelly opens with “Habbie Doobie,” a good distillation of the appeal of TX Jelly. Hazy organ lines commingle with crunchy and snaking guitar riffs and smash into barroom piano all beneath the nonsensical shouted titular phrase. You can see the seams here, but that’s the point; you could be told this was a first take and believe it, and also believe it was recorded with overdubs on the 50th take and believe that too.
The beauty of having a rotating cast of musicians and a loose collective is that you never know which way TX Jelly is going to go next. The Band-esque chill of “Bondurant Women” can sit beside the Waylon Jennings-lite choogle of “Gone” and it makes perfect sense. “My Way” sounds like a Elvis ballad sung by Elvis after a 10 day bender, and the closing track, the swaying, spare ode to the open road “Trading Paint” and somehow those feel of a piece, when they share nothing in terms of style or singer. The only thing uniting them is the shambolic Texas Gentlemen universe.
2017 has been a ridiculously strong year for left of center country music, from Aaron Watson and Nikki Lane, down to Colter Wall and Angaleena Presley. But damned if TX Jelly might not take the cake; it’s an album that sounds as fun as it was to record, and one that gives the sidemen their due time in the spotlight.