march 2011

Charlie Sizemore: Inhabiting the tunes fully and convincingly with an easygoing style bereft of flash but powerful and affecting by dint of sheer honesty

The Immaculate Heartache

By David McGee

Charlie Sizemore

With this, his seventh album, it is past time to speak of Charlie Sizemore unconditionally as a great bluegrass vocalist. A man who spent a large amount of time between his fine 2002 Tom T. Hall tribute album (Story Is The Songs of Tom T. Hall) and his 2007 Rounder debut (Good News) making most of his money from lawyering, Sizemore returns with a formidable knockout punch in Heartache Looking For a Home—listeners will be reeling from the high caliber of musicianship and songwriting, but above all from the natural soulfulness of Sizemore’s voice. The bracing, singsong lilt in his warm, unassuming tenor is a welcoming quality, a sound as natural as the turning of the earth and as right as rain. Like Alan Jackson and John Conlee—two outstanding vocalists whose songs Sizemore covers here and to whom he owes some debt in terms of phrasing and timbre—Sizemore simply inhabits a tune fully and convincingly with an easygoing style bereft of flash but powerful and affecting by dint of sheer honesty. Though he doesn’t write his songs, Sizemore demonstrates an uncanny understanding of lyrical nuance, knowing when to press the attack or lay back and simply report on the events at hand. Whether laying into an alcohol-soaked tragedy such as John Preston’s “Red Wicked Wine” (wherein this former Clinch Mountain Boy is joined in sorrowful harmony by his former boss, Dr. Ralph Stanley), or is having fun with Paul Craft’s cheery, unabashed admiration for “Ashley Judd,” or settling into a heartwarming lope of a love song in John Pennell-Keith Nixon’s lovely “Feelin’ Like El Paso,” Sizemore is right there, believable and impassioned at every turn. Surely, when he and his mates were listening to the playback (Sizemore also produced), someone in the room must have said, “This is perfect. Don’t change a thing.” If someone did indeed utter such words, he was right, and then some.

Charlie Sizemore, ‘Alison’s Band,’ from his 2007 Rounder debut, Good News, live at the NC State Bluegrass Festival, Cherokee, NC

No one song best exemplifies the magic Sizemore conjures with his voice. Heartache Looking For a Home is blessed with so many exceptional performances that six people listening at the same time probably couldn’t come to a consensus about a killer track any more than the six blind men of Indostan could agree about the elephant. One prominent contender, though, would be the Paul Craft-Shawn Camp co-write, “Slow Goin’.” With his superb band sprinting along merrily behind him, Sizemore coasts along, his voice mellow and soothing, revealing how much more trying life has become since his gal left him. If you get carried away by the infectious melody and velvety harmonies, or are slow to recover from galvanizing solos by Josh McMurray (banjo) and Matt DeSpain (dobro), you might miss Sizemore’s wry, bittersweet ruminations, so subtle is his knack for understatement when he sings, “It’s been slow goin’/Ah, but it’s been comin’ on for awhile/Slow goin’—goodbye might take a million miles/Sometimes a man can use some time alone/It’s been slow goin’ with you gone...,” and dips ever so softly into a teary whisper on “with you gone” in case there’s any mistaking his cool demeanor as a sign he’s completely absorbed the blow. The same sort of deceptive emotional equilibrium informs an arresting version of Tom T. Hall’s “Pay No Attention To Alice,” a truly pitiful scene in which a couple of men with a tendency to drink too much and with their own histories of aberrant behavior (reckless driving, cowardly conduct in service to their country) tsk-tsk the unseemly behavior of one party’s alcoholic wife, whose most serious offense seems to be burning the chicken. Sizemore does a great job of drawing the listener into the mens’ confidence with his restrained but aggrieved reading, before the unsettling truth unfolds in the final two verses and we see there are no sympathetic figures at all in this story. DeSpain and McMurray again carry the weight of the arrangement, but this time by laying back, even plodding along, mirroring the even-tempered aspect of Sizemore’s voice. The havoc alcohol abuse can wreak on a relationship figures into another low-key gem, Sizemore’s deliberate interpretation of the scathing, pitiful tale of self-deception related in the Buddy Braddock-Harlan Howard chestnut, “I Don’t Remember Loving You,” a Top 10 country single for John Conlee in 1982. Sizemore, with an assist from DeSpain’s aching high harmony vocal, revisits the song but supplants the mainstream country sound of the Conlee original with a multi-textured bluegrass-centered approach nourished by Sizemore’s own sturdy acoustic strumming, DeSpain’s agitated dobro cries and guest Ron Stewart’s aching fiddle voicings.

Charlie Sizemore at Nashville’s Station Inn, July 4, 2008, with his Vern Gosdin tribute, ‘Blame It On Vern’

As with the “Ashley Judd” song (by the way, an investigation may be in order, seeing as how on his 2007 Rounder album, Good News, our man had a hit with “Alison’s Band,” in which he yearned to join Union Station—anyone see a pattern here?), Sizemore avails himself of other lighthearted moments in countering the tunestack’s more serious themes. Paul Craft and Billy Edd Wheeler teamed on “No Lawyers In Heaven,” an opportunity for Sizemore to laugh at himself in a bouncy, mock-serious arrangement of a number whose lyrics articulate the sentiments of far more folks than will ever hear this album. Reconfiguring an Ernest Tubb classic, Alan Jackson and Don Sampson fashioned “Walking The Floor Over Me,” which Sizemore offers up in a casual swing take with Ron Stewart’s fiddle adding a Texas flavor to the story of a broken-hearted woman who’s keeping her downstairs neighbor awake by pacing incessantly about the floor above his apartment ceiling. In the penultimate track, the assembled cast romps and stomps through the Stanley Brothers’ “Going to Georgia,” their charge led by McMurray’s blazing hot, rolling banjo riffs and Stewart’s fiery fiddle, with plenty of room left for Danny Barnes (mandolin) and DeSpain to make their own sprints with the melody in tow, while Sizemore’s frenetic vocal holds the center. No disrespect to the Stanleys, but Heartache Looking For a Home needed something more to go out on, and Sizemore found it in another Paul Craft co-write (with Greg Trafidlo and Barbara Martin), a real beauty of a love letter to the land in “Crossing Over Into the Valley.” Concerning a wanderer’s return from the big city to the Shenandoah Valley of his raising, the song marks an occasion of reconciliation with nature and memory as reflected in Sizemore’s plaintive, heart tugging vocal celebrating the reconnection with his roots (“sweet sanctuary, welcome me in”) in terms also suggesting the work of providence in guiding him back to where his soul will restored. Thus does Sizemore guide us back to where we belong, too, examining our own hearts for proof of what really matters. What could be more perfect?

Charlie Sizemore’s Heartache Looking For a Home is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024