Chris Richards 

Tumblers & Grit

Richards' press compares his languid baritone to those of Don Williams and Gordon Lightfoot, but his introspective songs of vulnerability and mettle are more akin to those of Rodney Crowell and roots-rocker Dave Alvin, and his melodies and storytelling follow in the footsteps of Billy Joe Shaver and John Prine. Heady comparisons for a relatively unknown artist's second album, but Richards' extraordinary songs are delivered with a confidence that belies their love-torn turmoil. You'd think that someone who could smoothly namecheck bluesman Willie McTell in rhyme would make sure you noticed, but Richards draws you in with an emotional weariness that translates into tasteful understatement.

The buzz generated by Richards' 2002 debut, Jam the Breeze, is fully realized on this follow-up. He's retained the languor and the melodic hooks of his first release, but magnified their effect with production by R.S. Field (who has worked with Prine, Shaver, Allison Moorer, and others), as well as pedal steel from the recently unretired Lloyd Green. Field emphasizes his subject's soulfulness by surrounding him with gently loping rhythms and surprisingly enthusiastic support from Nashville A-listers. Richards' laid-back singing is buoyed by a lively two-step for "Honkytonk Graveyard," and "Bells of Odilia" lays a sublime path of organ and steel from Saturday night's drunken stupor to Sunday morning's redemption.

Songs about working-class roots, first-person civil-war narratives, and country music's glory days provide only a few examples of how the South has taken hold of this Wisconsin native's writing. Richards has assimilated the elements that once made Nashville the center of American music, and is doing his part to help Music City regain its former relevance.

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