With the exceptions of Willis Alan Ramsey and Axl Rose, there has perhaps been no more greatly anticipated album than Stoney LaRue’s Velvet. Six plus years since his last release, recorded over a period of three years with acclaimed producers Frank Liddell (Miranda Lambert and Chris Knight among many others) and Mike McCarthy (Patty Griffin), backed by the best hired guns in Nashville including names such as Randy Scruggs on guitar and Chad Cromwell on drums, Velvet is a very finely crafted collection of music. It is hard for anything to live up to immense hype and Velvet attempts to do so admirably. The tunes are mostly successful at satisfying the hype with only a few moments that don’t quite measure up.
Liddell and company smartly made LaRue’s voice the centerpiece of each track and the mix of each song expertly cradles the textured music around LaRue’s smartly delivered vocal runs. LaRue’s strongest asset is his soulful ability to truly inhabit the lyrics and produce a strong vocal that always stays true to the song’s inherent message.
Much of the music on this album is reminscent of the sounds Traveling Wilburys created if they’d added a fiddle in the mix too. This is most evident on the standout track “Look At Me Fly”. The tempo and structure of the song are in line with previous Stoney hits and one can already envision crowds singing along to the rousing chorus at live shows as enthusiastically as they do old favorites.
The unsung hero of this record is singer/songwriter Mando Saenz who co-wrote 9 of the 10 tracks with LaRue and earns an associate producer credit for his contributions. The one song that isn’t a LaRue/Saenz collaboration is “Wiregrass” a song co-written with Adam Hood. Saenz has always been an underappreciated poet and his worldliness compliments LaRue’s rootsiness in a very refreshing and unique manner.
“Travelin’ Kind” doesn’t just evoke the classic Merle Haggard song “The Running Kind” with its title, the lyrics and melody also recall the Hag’s work. For perhaps the first time ever, LaRue allows his vocals to take on an almost vunerable state as he laments the past and spins folksy lyrical yarns about the future. “Sharecropper” grooves heavy and contains generous doses of harmonica. The most experimental song of the group is “Sirens”. It contains blazing fiddles intertwined with inventive vocal effects and screeching guitars all has words flow with the type of smooth rhythm only found in vintage hip-hop songs. As odd as all that sounds, it actually works. “Te Amo Mas Que La Vida” is a cool, little song that features a funky, rolling bass line throughout and a bold squeezebox/fiddle combination that would make Freddy Fender proud.
Something notably missing from the album is a bit of the raw attitude that LaRue has displayed in his previous work. The whole vibe is mellow and melancholy. I think that’s what they were going for and they definitely succeeded. No need for ignorant sell-out chants, it’s still Stoney…just a Stoney that’s seen 250 gigs a year for the past six years. In fact, if the album was to have a theme it would be that of a world-weary traveler unloading the things he’s seen and experienced on the road as means of musical therapy. It’s certainly a testament to LaRue’s natural, God-given ability that he’s been able to stretch his music in this manner.
Overall, the wait was well worth it. LaRue has proven adept at trusting his musical instincts and Velvet is a solid progression from The Red Dirt Album. It is admirable that LaRue has released a record that possesses such depth and charm in a musical environment that clamors for lowest common denominator trash in the mainstream and Texas. We should all hope that radio embraces these tunes…and that we don’t have to wait another six years to see what Stoney LaRue has up his sleeve next.