When I first moved to South Shropshire a few years ago, I found myself living just a couple of doors away from writer and broadcaster Gareth Owen. And then I realized that I was also living by country legend-in-his-own-mind Virg Clenthills, Gareth’s country-singing alter ego. I even played guitar for Virg occasionally, and even acting as body double – well, picking-hand double –on a Virg video. So when Gareth’s CD Rolling By rolled by my mailbox, I was expecting at the very least a collection of excellent songs, and I wasn’t disappointed.
All the songs and lead vocals here are Gareth’s, ably backed by producer Ed Begley on keyboards and backing vocals, Ruby Turner on backing vocals, James Kitchman on guitars, Matt Park on pedal steel, Ruth Goller on basses and backing vocals, and Tony Bianco on drums and percussion.
- ‘Lady Whiskey’ is a desperate story of a man in the process of losing everything to alcoholism.
- ‘Ashes And Diamonds’ is a quintessential country and western ballad. Nicely done.
- Perhaps it’s because I’ve recently reviewed Forever Words that ‘Nowhere’ reminds me a little of Johnny Cash, both the song and the delivery. But it’s an excellent song and performance in its own right.
- ‘Walk Out The Door’ has some of the feel of early country/rock and roll crossover songs like Hank Williams’s ‘Move It On Over’. I particularly like the pedal steel here.
- ‘Jesse James And The Barber’ is very much in the Virg Clenthills mould, quirky and facetious, much of it spoken rather than sung. Thematically it might remind you of ‘I’ve Danced With A Man Who’s Danced With A Girl, Who’s Danced With The Prince Of Wales’, yet it has a serious undertone that Farjeon’s 1927 song never aspired to.
- ‘Nothing Better To Do’ is one of those femme fatale/Jezebel/devil-woman songs, performed effectively enough.
- ‘Dream River’ is another heart-tugging country ballad.
- ‘Telling Lies Like This’ is a little rockier, a little reminiscent of Dylan on recent albums like Together Through Life.
- ‘Before I Get To Heaven’ is, for me, the best song on the CD, telling the story of the last hours of Hank Williams set against sparse keyboards and acoustic bass.
- ‘Rolling By’ is a song of reminiscence with a catchy chorus. A good end to the album.
It’s no surprise that one of Gareth’s influences was Tom T. Hall, a country singer noted for his storytelling in song. That said, some of his lighter material – such as ‘Jesse James And The Barber’ here – is also somewhat reminiscent of Shel Silverstein, though Gareth’s vocals are nearer to a lighter-toned Johnny Cash than Silverstein’s off-the-wall vocalizing.
While the CD is issued under Gareth’s real name, there’s a lot of Virg here, in both the repertoire and the vocal delivery. Without Virg’s patter, the darkness behind some of these stories has more of the impact they deserve. Perhaps the slightly OTT vocal delivery here and there hints at the parodic drama that makes Gareth’s alter ego’s stagecraft so entertaining, though. Which makes me wonder whether Virg should get a CD of his own, rather than selfie-bombing Gareth’s. Nevertheless, this would be a worthy souvenir of a Virg/Gareth gig. And a wider range of country lovers might be enthralled to hear what sometimes comes out of the hills of South Shropshire.
Artist’s website: www.garethowen.com
It’s hard to find videos of Gareth so here’s Virg Clenthills with ‘A Song For Hank Williams’: