The formula by which any given singer-songwriter can dredge up the troubadour effect is a rather tried-and-true one. Listen to lots of Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen, conjure up some sort of world-weary voice, and pen a litany of songs that bemoan one’s current (or just very recently past) station in life. There will always be a people wanting to live vicariously through someone else’s sad bastard, woe-is-me tales; and besides, if you’re anywhere near being a good storyteller, you’ll have a respectable fan base quite rapidly.
What Billy Wallace does right on his debut full-length album, with the appropriately disenchanted title of The Road Spit Me Out, is that he takes the aforementioned formula and promptly turns it on its ear. Yes, Wallace’s songs are replete with the steady forlorn pluck/strum of an acoustic guitar singing “life has been hard to me” tunes, all supported by the customary harmonica, violin, mandolin, banjo, and sweetly cooing high female harmony vocals. Despite all of the possibly too familiar trappings, it seems that this well-traveled musician is in on the joke, as his down-and-dirty odes from the road are actually quite self-aware. There’s a matter-of-fact resolution at work on tracks like the title cut, “Lover, I Am Overwhelmed,” and “Wrecking Ball Blues” that intimates someone who’s been there and done that, but he’s not interested in dragging the listener through the mud, muck, and mire along with him.
To be sure, the record itself isn’t a joke, but it’s more that Wallace is simply quite familiar with the stylistic stereotypes he’s embracing with this nine-song album, so he’s doing so willingly and with a pronounced twinkle in his eyes. It’s as if he’s singing in the first-person omniscient and laughing (possibly to keep from crying) as he recounts his stories of heartbreak and loss. Furthermore, there’s a engaging intimacy that’s cultivated through the apparently DIY method in which the album was recorded: at times, it feels like it was recorded in a living room by some folks who are comfortable with each other as musicians and are also really close friends.
If you further factor in Wallace’s frequent shout-outs to the beloved Virginia of his upbringing (complete with some smack talk directed at Kentucky), then it’s easy to find favor with The Road Spit Me Out. It’s not every day that I listen to a guy sing about his hopes, fears, troubles, and dreams without being bored out of my mind by how pedantic, plaintive, and whiny he is.