Some guys have roots and some guys have roots. A.J. Roach has roots growing out of the bottoms of his feet. Make no mistake, Roach is not tied to the roots, but he lives and breathes them. They seep into his modern songs like water into good soil and make them something else altogether.
If you wonder why, just look at his history. Raised in Scott County, Virginia, he could hardly avoid the legends of music greats The Carter Family and The Stanley Brothers. Mountain music had to have surrounded him even when modern country took the edge off of the traditional side. What you grow up with, it is said, is what you go back to, if even for a visit now and again. Those who don't go back have no roots and, like I said, this guy's roots are solid.
From the start, Revelation marks Roach as The Man. His roots pull up a bit for a bit of footstompin' courtesy of “Clinch River Blues”, which sounds a bit like an acoustic backwoods hillbilly version of The Yardbirds' version of “Smokestack Lightnin'” (without the extended guitar solos). With voice somewhere between normal and old-aged, he straps the dog with the help of great mandochello (I know! The mind boggles at the numbers of instruments out there these days) and fiddle supreme. He throws you off a little with “Devil May Dance”, a bit of folk/pop/psych helped along by some impressive C3 organ straight out of the late sixties, then slows it down with a superb ballad, “Fashionistas”, with a slight Roger McGuinn twist on his spot-on vocals (with guitar and Wurlitzer, this one out-Eagles the Eagles and then some). Next, he fashions as beautiful piece of country rock as I've heard in some time with the light and emotive “Sears & Roebuck Suit”.
He works his way through a handful of other really fine tracks until you get to the title track. “Revelation” takes you back to Clinch River with its mandolins and banjos, the hillbilly sounds offset by background brass and worked to perfection. He could have dragged it out a few more minutes, but when a song is right, it is right and Roach seems to have a feel for things like that. At 3:49 it works, but that doesn't stop my hippie heart from wishing for nine minutes more just to give the band (and my ears) a better workout.
The listener might have a bit of trouble figuring out exactly where Roach is going from one track to the next, but there is a thread there and it is Roach. The guy writes like a pro, both musically and lyrically, and ties his music to his various strengths, which are many. Ten to one, he's a monster in a club and even better in a small arena.
Sadly enough, albums like this find me once again playing catch up. Roach released “Dogwood Winter” in 2003 and it gained solid critical acclaim (I looked it up) and I have no idea how I missed it, but there you go. There are so many good albums out there these days, I now have to backtrack to stay afloat. Don't you go making the same mistake. This is one killer album and well worth checking out. Roach has samples available on his website, www.RoachMusic.com. If you do check him out, chances are I'll be seeing you back in the 2003 racks picking up “Dogwood Winter” and maybe in a line outside wherever Roach is playing next. I'll be the guy clutching a copy of “Revelation”, hoping for a chance to get an autograph. It will be worth the trouble.
- Frank Gutch