Electric Moonshine (Tribute to Popcorn Sutton) is the latest album by the Sickstring Outlaws. It is the 2014 follow-up to Johnny Drank Jack, covering much of the same territory: Bakersfield-style country songs about the misadventures of living life on the edge, like predecessors Hank Williams, George Jones, and other outlaw country singers, especially Merle Haggard. For subject matter, no problem; you have booze, drugs, and jail, and the regrets and trials of hard-living honky-tonk men. The ten-track CD is dedicated to a famous bootlegger.
The band is built around Ron Houston’s singing and songwriting; he adds acoustic guitar. Also on board for this project are Jimmy Zollo on guitar, Ben Zinn on guitar and pedal steel, Drew Zollo on bass, Gavin Glenn on drums, Dennis Caplinger on banjo and fiddle, Lance Dieckmann on harp, and backing vocals as well as harmony singing by Lisa Winston. Mark DeSisto did a nice job of producing and recording.
Houston wrote all but two of the songs, and his rough-cut vocal approach works well for anthems about whiskey, cocaine, and pot. The opener is “Sounds Like a Country Song to Me,” a fast-paced start about being jailed for DUI, with lyrics that invoke Charlie Daniels, Waylon Jennings, and Conway Twitty. “I ain’t one to run, I sure ain’t one to hide/ All I have is my Southern pride.” If anything, it’s a purpose statement by Houston for the Sickstring Outlaws. “Cocaine, Cigarettes, and Lone Star Beer” is a Mark Allan Atwood memoir, as the singer relates his bad decisions and tendencies to use them to keep awake and escape everything else, including the scars of a hard life lived.
Another chapter in the honky-tonk life is “My Best Girl.” She is his better half, whom Houston meets in a bar while in a beer haze, and within minutes is in a fight over. This highlight features some nifty twanging lead guitar work by Zinn, giving way to Dieckmann blowing some sharp harp. “My Drinking Ways” is a softer ballad about how “all my friends think I’m gonna die real soon” from demon rum, and Caplinger’s fiddle gives it an extra boost.
Houston sings about the “The Life and Death of Sam Dupree,” about a friend who drank whisky, smoked weed, and cheated on his wife, then passed away before his time. A break with Zollo’s guitar and Zinn’s pedal steel adding statements helps it click. Yet another ballad about getting high and drunk as a lifestyle choice is “I Died a Long Time Ago,” as Houston relates listening to the masters—Willie, Hank and Waylon—as he answers concerned friends about his longevity, a ship that sailed long ago. Again, the guitars and harp contribute to making the song a soloist showpiece. “I Let You Down” is a brisk confessional about being born the son of a hard drinker, telling his own son about his wayward ways framed by Caplinger’s fiddle and solid guitar and harp support.
Electric Moonshine is a good listen and is sure to please old school country fans.