Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys
"Long Shot of Hard Stuff" (Little Class Records, 2015)
Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys' first album in a decade, "Long Shot of Hard Stuff," is a serious and fun, and seriously funny, record from a band that started out presenting itself as something of a joke. Blatant partial stage names adopted for each band member signaled from the get-go that these retro honky-tonkers were playacting. The Misery Boys would kick things off at late 1990s club dates with their front man still offstage, the better to introduce him to musical fanfare: “Rex! Hobart!” It was a cute conceit: This guy we’d never heard of was a country and western legend; we were his groupies. But it didn’t really work. As performance art, the band didn’t possess the chops yet to pull it off. For anyone not in on the joke, it hardly registered at all.
To our good fortune, Rex (nee, Scott) Hobart and the Boys quickly ditched the irony (well, mostly) and left their wooden alt.country rhythms behind, too, setting to work instead on becoming a damn good country band. By the release of "Empty House," the band’s fourth and final album for Chicago’s “insurgent country” label Bloodshot Records, in 2005, that’s exactly what they’d become. "Empty House" was first-rate retro honky tonk, full of hard-swinging rhythm tracks, smartly traditional lyrics and, on a cover of Johnny Paycheck’s minor 1968 country hit “It Won’t Be Long [and I’ll Be Hating You],” a tone that was at once darkly humorous and just plain dark. If only for want of a time machine, Hobart originals such as “I Don’t Like that Mirror” might have been Paycheck cuts, as well.
Group members have spent the last decade mostly on hiatus, primarily focused on the domestic fronts of jobs, mortgages and babies. Perhaps that musical down time is one reason that "Long Shot of Hard Stuff" sounds so re-energized. The new album, released in April by KC’s Little Class Records, is of a piece with the band’s best work — and more in-the-pocket. Rex Hobart’s voice remains pleasantly rubbery and sandpaper-like — close kin to 1960s-vintage Paycheck, a key model for the band — though Hobart’s voice is less pliable and of a much finer grain than Paycheck’s, more Hobarty.
Respects are paid to a slew of other heroes on “Jones’n for Merle Haggard (to Sing Me Back Home).” Playfully grateful, it’s the punning lament of an unsuccessful country songwriter that raises its glass to Jones and Haggard, of course, and to Paycheck, but also to Johnny Cash, Charley Pride, Buck Owens and, a fresh touchstone throughout the album, Waylon Jennings.
We’re witnessing something of an Ol’ Waylon revival just now, and anyone excited by the heralded Waylon-isms of Sturgill Simpson will find much to like here — and perhaps even to prefer. Hobart swaps out Simpsons’ much-commented-upon “reptile alien” and pharmaceutical references for simply another round of beers — a less exotic route but one likely more in line with most people's lives — and is less self-serious than he is self-deprecating. One thing the Misery Boys appreciate about the Outlaws, it seems, is the way the earnest individualism of Waylon, Willie and the boys was interlaced with silly, boys-will-be-boys humor.
Serious, but fun. The standout is “Here in Hell,” about a guy drinking away his blues after a break up and filled with cutting jokes: “She told me where I could go to have fun.” A rollicking road trip called “Ain’t No Bras in Austin” (“a good town to get lost in”) is kicked off by the burping-bass rhythm track from Waylon’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” then gets rocked up considerably by pedal steel man Nate “Solomon” Hofer on talk box. The title track borrows the Waylors’ sound, too, to hit on some poor lonely heart at a bar: “Long Shot of Hard Stuff” means, in part, exactly what you thought it meant. And when they cover Waylon’s rowdy partner Willie Nelson, it’s with an organ-enhanced and country-funk version of “Shotgun Willie,” who Outlaw fans will recall mostly “sits around in his underwear.”
The album builds to “Home on the Road,” which speeds up the lick from Dwight Yoakam’s “When I First Came Here” to praise the joy of getting gone (“Nothing solves a problem like a full fuel gauge”) and of getting back home. “You know, folks, we’ve been on the road for twenty years now,” Hobart says halfway through, overstating the case considerably. “We’d just like to take a second to tell each and every one of you how much we appreciate you coming out … all these years.” Augmented by mixed-in crowd roar, the pose is tongue in cheek. The Thank You is from the heart.
David Cantwell is the author of “Merle Haggard: The Running Kind,” the co-author of “Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles,” and a contributor to Newyorker.com.