Austin’s Horse Opera: (from left) Jimmy Deveney, Ben Sparks, Chris Walther, Scott Akers: You want to be wherever their music playing.
By David McGee
SOUNDS OF THE DESERT
Formed in 2005, Austin’s rough-cut honky tonk band Horse Opera, still led by founder/lead singer/guitarist/songwriter Jimmy Deveney, coalesced last year with the right mix of players to complement Deveney in Scott Akers (guitar, vocals), Ben “Sparky” Sparks (bass) and drummer Chris Walther. They added Burton Lee on pedal steel for their first studio album, Sounds of the Desert, and have come up with nothing less than superb long player that fairly reeks of sweat, beer and sawdust-covered hardwood floors, but also has a lot going for it as narrative. Like their Austin compatriots Heybale, Horse Opera plays so fiercely and with such commitment to hard country music that wherever their music is playing is a place you wanna be.
Horse Opera, ‘Gunfighter,’ from the album Songs of the Desert. Caught live at Sam’s Burger Joint in San Antonio, TX, October 29, 2009.
There’s no mistaking Horse Opera’s mealticket: it’s Deveney’s reedy, emotional singing, his smart songwriting and the band’s passionate execution of Deveney’s songs. The title may be a bit misleading, although the ambiance throughout the long player is as stark and ominous as the Mojave; but the desert the title has in mind may well be something barren in the souls of the various characters populating Deveney’s songs, many of whom have been wronged in various ways and are desperate to make things right, or despairing of ever doing so, or have simply taken an ultimately fatalistic tack in approaching their future, such as the title gent in “Gunfighter,” a lively thumper of a track in which the singer warns plaintively, “I know I’ll die for the way that I live/That’s just the way it’s gonna be,” as Lee weaves sputtering pedal steel embroidery around his casually proclaimed prophecy. In the brisk shuffle of “Salty Tears,” Deveney kisses off an unfaithful lover with a certain bitter flair—“I’m trying hard to increase our degrees of separation/I don’t wanna be someone you once knew/So please accept my resignation…”—but basically kicks himself for not recognizing “the cheatin’ kind” when he saw it, while vowing to be more attentive to disturbing signs in the future. The upshot? “I Won’t Run,” a sturdy, stomping declaration of independence in which Deveney suggests the woman who would have his heart better have no illusions of 2.5 kids, a dog, and a house with a picket fence—“Guess I always get what’s comin’/Learned a lot of hard lessons when it comes down to lovin’/But if you wanna be my girl, then you gotta roam.” Similarly, in the classic honky tonk shuffle strains of “Sorry” Deveney simply lays it on the line, echoing his stance in “I Won’t Run” in the song’s first line—“I’ve been down long enough to know what I can endure/And I found out just what misery is for…”—before stating outright his determination to avoid hurting as he’s done in the past, in an arrangement spiked with plenty of guitar twang and weeping pedal steel.
Horse Opera, ‘Save My Tears,’ the album opening song from Songs of the Desert, performed on Austin Live
Yes, heartache abounds on Sounds of the Desert, but the songs are so darn tuneful, the melodies so rich in traditional country elegance, the playing so naturally conversant in idiomatic touchstones, and Deveney’s vocals so striking and heartfelt that the sorrowful tales actually elevate the spirit, bring a body some comfort and solace (and not necessarily of the “better him than me” kind). Deveney, who evinces a twisted sense of humor in relating his plight, both vocally and as a song craftsman recalls no one so much as Rodney Crowell, circa Diamonds & Dirt. That’s not a comparison one makes lightly, but Deveney is worthy of it. He’s absorbed some Gram Parsons in his day, too, some Sir Doug, some Billy Joe Shaver, some Waylon, of course, but he’s not imitating any one of them—he’s authentic to the bone. There ought to be much more when this came from, but for now Horse Opera can count its new long player among the best hard-core country albums of the oughts. So let’s go to where this music is playing. Immediately.