Hellbound Glory Shines with Scumbag Country
One of the year’s best albums to date is Hellbound Glory’s Old Highs and New Lows. As the title implies, it’s an album for Saturday night and a Sunday morning spent coming down. Most of the Reno-based band’s songs revolve around booze, pills, or the consequences of overindulging in said vices. You’d think this would get tiresome after, say, half a dozen listens, but it doesn’t, thanks to clever lyrics, irresistible energy, and a sound that pays tribute to country music’s past while still managing to sound modern.
Hellbound Glory’s frontman and primary songwriter, Leroy Virgil, and drummer Chico Kortan formed the band in 2005; their first album followed three years later. Though the band’s lineup has changed often over the past five years, their sound, which Virgil describes as “scumbag country,” (a blend of classic country, rockabilly, and a dash of bluegrass) has remained the same. The term, more endearing than it may seem, was actually coined by fellow country singer Johnny Dilks. Virgil explains, “[We] stayed up until about 5 AM picking guitars and taking pills and drinking booze and all that stuff. The next day he woke up and said ‘You know what, you’re just a scumbag.’ I said, ‘You know what, you’re absolutely right.’ We took on the term ‘scumbag’ as kind of a good thing; I don’t think anybody’s used it before and I got tired of describing our music as ‘outlaw country.’”
A “Hank Williams obsessive,” since his grandfather gave him a cassette tape of the country legend twenty-some years ago, Virgil also counts Johnny Paycheck and Merle Haggard among his many influences. These influences are apparent when listening to Virgil’s well-crafted lyrics; “I’ll be Your Rock (At Rock Bottom)” sounds as though it could have come from Paycheck’s pen four decades ago. The songs found on Old Highs and New Lows are gut-wrenchingly honest, telling tales of a friend’s heroin overdose (the superb “One Way Track Marks”), broken hearts, and broken teeth. Every lyric on the album is memorable, even if Leroy can’t quite recall writing a few of them: “I woke up one morning with a napkin in my pocket with some words written down and I was like ‘That’s a good tune.’”
Those napkin lyrics became “Be My Crutch,” a strangely sweet ballad of dependence that’s one of the standout tracks on Old Highs. With aching pedal steel in the background and Virgil’s whiskey-burned baritone rasping “I’m too far gone to walk on my own/With you there to lean on/I just might make it home,” it’s a song that’s tailor made for the dive bars in which this scene plays out at every last call. Though Hellbound Glory’s two albums are bursting at the seams with autobiographical tales of drinking and despair, look for Virgil’s future material to be a little less dark. Newlywed once more and with a baby on the way, Virgil—who also performs as a solo artist—is in good spirits, stating “I’m not focusing on being self-destructive so much anymore, which is what basically all of my music was about until a year ago.”
When it comes to commercial country music, the unfailingly polite Virgil doesn’t like to “talk too much shit about what’s going on,” instead preferring to concentrate on his own work. A fan of Alan Jackson, George Strait, and Jamey Johnson, he’s not too sure about some of the artists currently ruling the airwaves. Though he can flip on the radio and hear a song he enjoys, he finds a few of the artists lacking when it comes to authenticity. He can’t quite hide the disdain in his voice as he relates the following anecdote: “A buddy of mine opened for one of the new Nashville guys—the entire soundcheck he was listening to rap music and then he started singing Vanilla Ice songs.” Shrugging, he concludes, “That’s not really my bag.”
Hellbound Glory may never get played on your local country station alongside the above Vanilla Ice aficionado. But they can be found with ever-increasing frequency on satellite radio, and, thanks to a relentless touring schedule, in your local scumbag hangout sooner rather than later. Just keep a handle on your wallet and your virtue—both are likely to disappear.
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