Last week I had one of those moments where preconceptions were shattered and got a more than pleasant surprise. You see, I had a CD sent to me that was released on the Smith Music Group label, which primarily handles Texas country and a few Red Dirt artists. My mistake came in assuming I knew what would be in the package.
You see, normally, if an album is released on Smith Music, even if it's an Oklahoma artist, it tends to lean into the current "Texas Country" genre. I should have known better, based on the person who sent it to me, but I looked at the packaging, shrugged, said OK and popped it in the stereo.
That CD, Incommunicado, by Chad Sullins & the Last Call Coalition took everything I mistakenly expected and threw it out the window from the first note. Once the album settles in, it actually has some country underpinnings, but by the time they came through I had already been converted as a believer. After starting with a brief intro and a bluesy acoustic riff, the band exploded with greasy blues guitars on "Scratch" and carried on in the same manner with "Straight to Hell."
More grounded in ZZ Top than George Jones -- or, God forbid, the modern country movement -- this wasn't just beer drinking dance hall music. I'd finally found a new album of whiskey slinging, hell raising tunes and was already texting friends, sharing my new find. Then I started laughing. After all, how could I not? When "Thank God for Jack Daniels" kicked in, all of my initial impressions were confirmed.
The album finally settled down for a couple songs in the middle with "Paris" and "Only Girl," which is also where the country influences started seeping out, but it's easy to see there's more Waylon Jennings than Rascal Flatts or Keith Urban in the mix. Even in the most country moments, the vibe is leveled with incredibly bluesy guitar lines. The rest of the album carried on in similar fashion, returning to form with "Full Throttle," a lean and muscular track that's more Kenny Wayne Shepherd than anything else.
Of course I shouldn't have been surprised by this revelation. Sullins has been floating through Tulsa for a couple of years now, most frequently playing Mercury Lounge, where generic, paint-by-numbers country is a mortal sin and anything from the gut is embraced wholeheartedly. Somehow, though, I had managed to miss Sullins and his crew until now.
As it turns out, Sullins and his band are based in Stillwater, where he moved in 2006 to be part of the music scene there after being offered a weekly gig. Although the new album's last two tracks, "Dance with the Gypsys" and "Oklahoma Moon," have more defined Red Dirt feel to them, the rest of the album of a more raw and visceral, earthy blues.
When discussing the album's overall vibe, Sullins admitted "It's kind of hard to put my stuff in a box, but knowing the Red Dirt scene and all it is, I'm proud to be associated with it, even if my music doesn't really seem to fit all the time."
After working for nearly two years with variety of musicians and friends to complete his first album, Uphill Battle, and bouncing around playing acoustic gigs since 2005, Sullins' current band finally came together in late 2008 and really helped cement his current sound, which is more blues and rock than country and folk.
When reflecting on the current CD, which was recorded live in the studio with the band with a few overdubs, Sullins said that "Paris turned out really country on this record. I'm not sure that's what we were really going for, but it turned out pretty cool.
That's about as country as we get, though."
"With the first record, I was piecing it together for almost two year," he said. "At times I wish I could go back and record it again with the band I have now. It had its proud moments, but some parts are what I wanted in any way shape or form.
"This time, I told the band I wanted to give our fans a piece of what we do live," he continued. "Our live show is pretty intense and I wanted to put a piece of that on the recording. I think we did that pretty well -- it's more reminiscent of what we do on stage and it's not overproduced. What we are is basically a garage band and I think we finally captured a little bit of that."
More than a solo album, however, Incommunicado sounds like a true band, interacting on the moment and firing on all cylinders. A good part of that can be attributed to the chemistry that has been created over the past four years of playing together and part of that is by design. Sullins shared that most of the songs had been written a year or two back and five or six of the songs have been in the band's live rotation for almost a year. "Scratch," in particular, has been part of the band's live set for almost a year, which undoubtedly gives it part of its explosive live quality on the disc. Other tracks like "Full Throttle" and "August Sun" have been plated live for nearly six months.
"With this record, we had the songs down and knew what we wanted to do," Sullins said. "Most of the songs were already figured out when we went into the studio."
The results give the CD an energy close to a live show, which is what Sullins wanted this time out, but he also shared that for the next album, he and the band are considering writing the songs, then leaving them alone to start from scratch and rebuild them in the studio and see what that renders.
More than anything, though, Sullins admits he's all about the live show, which is what keeps the band coming back to Tulsa. The group will be in town this Friday night, August 3, opening for Stoney LaRue at Cain's Ballroom and again on August 24 for their own show at Mercury Lounge.
When asked what to expect from the live show, Sullins initially answered with one word: Energy.
"From start to finish, that's what we put into it," he said. "We sweat out balls off and give a 110 percent every night. We're not your typical Red Dirt or Texas country band and I'm not a fan of George Strait style shows. If I go to a show, I don't just want to hear the record, I expect to see a show."
"With this CD, we play it close, but at the same time we try and put on a show. I want people to leave our concert and say 'Hey -- that just happened.'"
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