Music » Music Etc.

LONESOME JUBILEE

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You know that creepy guy: He lives two doors down. There he is, taking out another bag of trash, and his kitchen light is always on. God only knows what's buried in his yard.

You know the girl: She works two cubicles away. Keeps her curling iron plugged in under her desk. Dates guys she meets on the Internet. Pretty girl, but she'll never get a decent man that way.

Country singer Lonesome Bob knows these people, too; he writes about their lives as if he lived in their skin, did the killing himself, met the stranger for an afternoon rendezvous at downtownhotel.com.

On Lonesome Bob's two CDs, Things Fall Apart and Things Change, his song-stories are Faulknerian in their bittersweetness and Greek in their tragedy. His Gothic tales and rich instrumentation — pedal steel, twangy guitar, fiddle, and soulful Hammond B3 organ — have earned him an all-star pick in the alt.country league. His importance to this over-crowded genre (for every Lonesome Bob or Dale Watson there are a bunch of wannabes who think it's insightful to name their band Trailer Trash), is that he's utterly unpretentious yet sophisticated; funny without being dumb or dumber.

Imagine serial killer Henry Lee Lucas dancing under the stars on the rockin' murder tale "I Got Away With It," or the shallow woman who could live in a Thomas Kinkade subdivision in "Heather's All Bummed Out": "She's got an upscale hotel pastel landscape life in a tasteful frame ... so she's settling down and setting some goals at the expense of her dreams."

Produced by Steve Allen (for esoterica fans, he played guitar for the highly underrated, '70s power-pop band 20/20), Things Change contains as many personalities as the characters who populate it: the gorgeous ballad "In The Time I Have Left" segues to "I'm Dreaming the Lie Again," a honky-tonk number that tips its hat to Dwight Yoakam, which further down the road is followed by the soul classic, "Patches," and a spunky instrumental, "Two Drinks on an Empty Stomach" that moves and grooves with slinky guitars and B3 organ.

Lonesome Bob, aka Robert Cheney, drummed for the Ben Vaughn Combo, a catchy, smart, New Jersey band — one of the hundreds in the '80s that had the chops, songs, stage presence, and critical acclaim, but never bathed in the commercial success it deserved. (However, Vaughn has since gone on to earn a much better living writing quirky TV show themes for Third Rock from the Sun and That '70s Show).

But New Jersey is a loveless wasteland for country music, so Lonesome Bob moved to Nashville (also a loveless wasteland for country music). He managed to find a group of fellow travelers and outcasts, many of whom appear on the new record — country chanteuse Alison Moorer, guitarist Tim Carroll (country artist and amazing guitarist who in the late '70s played in the Gizmos, one of America's greatest punk bands), and singer-songwriter and former Sham, Amy Rigby— and carved himself a niche far from Music Row.

In 1997, perhaps the peak of alt.country, Lonesome Bob released Things Fall Apart, which contained the much-quoted line, "My mother's husband is a pretty good guy/they were lovers since before my daddy died." Ironically, Things Fall Apart was nominated for Best Americana Album by the very machine that ignored him, the Nashville Music Awards. At South by Southwest that year, the Bible of alt.country, No Depression magazine hosted a shindig at the Broken Spoke and Lonesome Bob's set — with all its irony, pathos, and humor — was the hit of the party.

The following year, his 18-year-old son, Zachary, died of hepatitis; when you snap Things Change out of the CD case, beneath the disc lies a picture of him. Thus, after a five-year hiatus between records, and without being maudlin, traces of mourning linger on Things Change: "Where Are You Tonight?" ("I kissed your fevered brow last night again, I watched you fade away last night again") and "Dying Breed" ("My son takes my needle, some powder and a spoon, he sets his sights on heaven, and shoots for the moon.")

Yet, Lonesome Bob rebounded, and on Things Change, his resilience resides in his storytelling. About people you might know: a murderer, a drunkard, the girl next door.

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