Tombstone Billy – The Ballad of Johnny Dime

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Review by Will Harris

Self-released

Those who have had the rare opportunity to see Oswestry trio Tombstone Billy at one of their few live appearances will tell you that what you get is mainly a couple of hours of joyfully executed slip-sliding, foot-stomping blues standards featuring some phenomenal performances by singer and virtuosic guitarist Dave Brown. The presumption, then, is that the group’s debut studio album will simply capture that on record. Instead, that most prominent element of the band forms only a part of the all-original music of The Ballad of Johnny Dime — and the album is all the better for it.

Its first track, the brooding, ominous ‘Satan Intro’, opens with nothing but sparse acoustic guitar licks as distant, rumbling thunder and driving rain draw nearer. This builds then dissipates to its thematic follow-up, ‘Hold That Cross’, a dusty, breezing piece of Americana haunted by distorted slide guitar and carried by an atmospherically bassy thud of a drum beat. “Jesus — he want me now”, desperately sings Brown from the voice of the pained but religiously hopeful farmer of the song, whose prospects look conversely bleak.

From there the album moves through various lyrical and musical themes. The following ‘Say You’re Cold’ is a cool acoustic blues that’s accompanied by clean electric guitar licks, playful cajon and the subtle notes of a Rhodes organ, while the sunny country love song of ‘Sitting On A Bank’ shuffles along with a quaint toe-tapping loveliness. The album never lacks in freshness, either, as the brighter songs are contrasted with ones of more serious import: the dreamy folk of ‘Laid Down My People’ provides respite between two of the more upbeat tracks, as does the arresting ‘Flowers In The Garden’, an almost universal contemplation of coming to terms with the passing of a loved one, made all the more stark and powerful by its use of only one guitar and vocal.

It’s these muted, reflective interludes that equally give more impetus to the livelier numbers, letting ‘Satan At My Window’, a porch-stomping country blues, pick up the pace and mood as Brown takes a humorously enlightened view on sin (‘I can’t get down with hidin’ / My devil sits down by me’). The penultimate title track, in similar fashion, kicks out from the mournful coda of ‘Swing High On High’, with a lively, driving combo of country, blues and bluegrass, as if Johnny Cash decided to take a couple of pointers from Lynyrd Skynyrd by way of Bill Monroe’s backing band.

One of the main things that makes these songs so enjoyable is that the arrangements show signs of a band who have complete faith in and knowledge of the material they’re handling. Al Price’s bass is thick and resonant on the more atmospheric songs, while holding the country ones together with steady up-down rhythm, while Steve Lees’ varied percussion throughout is expressive and sympathetic. It’s equally remarkable too, considering the authentic roots feel of the music, that Brown is never falls into the temptation to give his already able voice an American accent — something many blues artists in the UK regretfully succumb to. The decision, rather than undermining the feel of the record, conversely adds to the authenticity, and also gives these very traditional styles of music — plus their new and earnest arrangements here — a sound that’s surprisingly fresh. And who’d have expected that from three middle-aged blokes from Shropshire?

The Ballad of Johnny Dime8 out of 10

  • Check Tombstone Billy out at Soundcloud here

Track listing:

  1. Satan Intro
  2. Hold That Cross
  3. Say You’re Cold
  4. Satan At My Window
  5. Laid Down My People
  6. Sitting On A Bank
  7. Flowers In The Garden
  8. My Friend Jake
  9. Swing High On High
  10. The Ballad of Johnny Dime
  11. Suzy’s Coming Home