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Great country music has many of the same attractions as great R&B: strong, soulful singing; a beat that doesn't just let you dance but makes you (albeit different dances); lyrics that tell adult stories; and instrumental backing with parts that interlock like a well-oiled machine. All these elements are present in spades on Heybale's The Last Country Album.

The band is blessed with three fine frontmen in Gary Claxton, Earle Poole Ball, and Redd Volkaert. Claxton provides the Bakersfield-style charm of a young Merle Haggard, with the songwriting talent to boot. Tunes like the honky-stomper "Guess Where I'll be This Morning" and the drinkin' and wanderin' story "California Wine" boast the attention to detail and flawless construction found in the classics of the genre.

Earle Poole Ball, who has tickled the ivories for everyone from Johnny Cash to Gram Parsons, lends a Ronnie Milsap feel to his equally well-crafted songs. "Livin' In A Cheap Motel," "Honky Tonk Mood," and the sing-along "Everything...About Drinkin'" show that, backed by experience and devoid of irony, country humor can make you smile rather than wince.

Redd Volkaert, Merle Haggard's go-to guitarist since the millennium turned, embodies the country instrumental ethic of virtuoso playing in service of the song. Throughout the record Volkaert, Poole, Cindy Cashdollar (steel and dobro), and Elana James (fiddle), provide jaw dropping fills and solos that consistently ring emotionally true to the tune. Volkaert also has a powerful baritone voice that he lends to an obscure Willie Nelson tune, "Mr. Record Man," and the swing chestnut "Hang Your Head In Shame."

By the standards above, "country" is a term bandied about a little too loosely these days. Alt-country largely lacks in the strong singing, exciting picking, and tight grooving departments, while most "modern" country might as well be called Southern rock. Let's hope that The Last Country Album is only a title and not a prediction--the world needs more Heybale. • Michael Ross

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heybale.com       myspace.com/heybaletheband

reddvolkaert.net        myspace.com/garyclaxton

earlpooleball.com       myspace.com/txstringbass

myspace.com/tallram     Continental Club (Austin)

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