As 2016 rapidly wanes, the losses sustained in country’s traditional sector since the year began—Merle Haggard, longtime Opry stalwarts Jim Ed Brown and Jean Shepard, sweet Joey Feek and master song-crafter Guy Clark among them—serve to highlight the increasing absence of certain characteristics that have given country music its lasting power.
It’s become common practice for younger country acts to respectfully name-check Cash, Haggard and their iconic ilk, though in today’s pop-informed country market, evidence of their influence is often diluted at best, like a photocopy of a photocopy.
Those dry and thirsty for authentic country music need travel no further than “Out of Road,” the new album from songwriter Bobby Tomberlin. The independently released 11-song collection stands poised to restore hope to those who simply don’t want to squeeze into skinny jeans or listen to music by those who wear them. No offense, son. Just sayin’.
Tomberlin, whose string of successes reaches back to 2001, rightly remains in demand as a top-notch songman. While the longtime Curb Music writer is steeped in classic country, his stylistic reach allows for genre-defying numbers such as the recent Barbra Streisand/Blake Shelton duet “I’d Want It to Be You,” which brings to mind the cream of cosmopolitan country from the likes of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. The skinny-jeaned among us might snicker, but this is the kind of song people will still find meaningful decades from now.
Ditto for Tomberlin’s co-written Diamond Rio chart-topper “One More Day,” now a perennial with an emotional clout that easily outlives the bolo-tie-and-mullet period from which it came forth. Don’t be deterred by what might seem like outdated, hipster-unapproved references—”Out of Road” demonstrates an impressively deep command and understanding of country’s history and vocabulary going back 40 years or more.
Tomberlin’s sturdy songs straddle two subcategories of country: the easy accessibility of Nashville hitmaking formulas—though with a mature perspective heard less frequently on today’s airwaves—and the uncompromised artistic freedom epitomized by such creative radicals as Hank Sr. and Waylon. As a case in point, guests and co-writers range from genial all-Americans Vince Gill and Bill Anderson to rule-bending outlaw-country prototype Bobby Bare.
Gill and Anderson each lend vocals to the pensive centerpiece track “The Grand Ole Opry,” which innovatively takes the first-person perspective of the hallowed institution itself, if institutions could indeed sing in a plainspoken yet deliberate baritone like Tomberlin’s and tell you they miss Patsy Cline and “Wabash Cannonball.” “Lightning in a Bottle” takes a similar approach, imagining the moments when certain country classics were created and acknowledging that such sparks of inspiration can never occur in the same form twice.
However true that notion may be, it doesn’t stop Tomberlin and his host of collaborators from aiming at such targets with none-too-shabby marksmanship; combined with its punch line, “Wherever She Is” (“I hope she stays there”) is the kind of late-’60s-evoking lyric that belongs in the drawer with “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly” and “If the Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’s Me.” The tear-in-your-beer “Closing Time,” meanwhile, wishes for a bar that stays open 24/7, because “heartache doesn’t have a closing time.”
If you’re wondering how it is that a 21st-century Nashville craftsman has the internal musical filing system of a man twice his age or better, there’s an explanation. He started very young. ” I had a make-believe radio station in my bedroom at home when I was like 6,” explains Tomberlin, “and then by the time I was 11 I was a disc jockey at my hometown radio station.” At that small AM station in Luverne, Alabama, Tomberlin quickly realized he had professional access to stars’ managers and “started making phone calls and setting up interviews, and I would interview someone every day, like Bobby Bare, Eddy Arnold, Ray Price.”
Because Tomberlin knew his stuff and had a voice that was unusually deep even prior to his teens, he wasn’t normally suspected of being a junior journalist—until he’d walk into press conferences, Dad-delivered, with his cassette recorder in tow. “All these other guys would look at me like, ‘Who is this kid?'”
Tomberlin, who preceded his move to Music City with a Muscle Shoals DJ gig after high school, says that radio “was an education . . . because I learned who the songwriters were. When I would spin those 45 records, I would look to see the names underneath the songs, and I would see these names like Steve Dorff, or Bill LaBounty, or Dean Dillon, and the coolest thing is that I’ve been able to work with these people in later years.”
Talk about your full-circle moments: when Tomberlin took the stage along with new traditionalist wunderkind Mo Pitney (another of the guests on “Out of Road”) on a recent Sunday for an in-store show at the downtown Ernest Tubb Record Shop, he was joined at one point by hit-making ’80s songstress Sylvia, also a guest and featured co-writer on his new album. Decades prior, she had sat at the other end of his microphone, being interviewed before performing at the Alabama State Fair (and he’s pretty sure he still has the cassette).
The nervousness he admits having once felt as a pre-teen talking to towering country artists like Bobby Bare very nearly reared its head again on a recent co-writing session with Bare. “I went out to his house in Hendersonville,” Tomberlin says, “and all of a sudden I’m having a little moment of ‘oh, “Detroit City.” There’s the guy who was one of the first to cut [Kris] Kristofferson’s songs.’ And I think it’s important never to lose that [sense of honor].”
The new album’s Waylon-esque collaboration with Bare, “The Songwriter,” pits a grizzled old-school music man against Tomberlin’s nice-guy character, telling an ominous tale of success gone sideways and warning newbies that the music biz is not for the faint of heart: “You might think you wanna be / A songwriter like me / But you don’t.”
Tomberlin, who knows he’s beaten the odds, attributes his good fortune to having been led along by “the love of the music,” admitting that “I didn’t look at [the music business] as a business . . . though maybe I should have.” No regrets necessary. The soured old veteran voiced by Bobby Bare on “The Songwriter” represents a dark destiny the upbeat Tomberlin is not likely to ever experience. So, if you think you wanna be / A songwriter like Bobby T. / Then go for it, son—skinny jeans and all.