'Sorry You Couldn't Make It' Review: Swamp Dogg returns to his country roots with a superb, heartfelt album
This is a fantastic new country record from an old master of the game and is sure to have the genre's younger stars tipping their cowboy hats to him in approval
The king of American swamp music has returned to his rightful throne in the country. March 6 marked the release of 'Sorry You Couldn't Make It', the latest album by the legendary 77-year-old musician Jerry Williams aka Swamp Dogg.
Also known as Little Jerry Williams, the wily old funk/blues/country master has been variously described as an eccentric musical genius, a long-serving stalwart of Southern soul and one of the greatest cult figures of 20th Century American music.
'Sorry You Couldn't Make It' was produced by Ryan Olson (of Poliça fame) and released via Joyful Noise Recordings and Pioneer Works Press.
It marks the long-awaited follow-up to 2018's critically-acclaimed, Ryan Olson-produced 'Love, Loss, And Auto-Tune' — it was Swamp Dogg’s first album to grace the top 10 on the Billboard charts, thereby marking his re-entry into the charts since his 1970's classic 'Mama's Baby - Daddy's Maybe'.
And now things truly have come full circle, as the music legend's latest LP, 'Sorry You Couldn’t Make It' allows Swamp Dogg to once again dive into the sound he actually grew up playing: good old fashioned country music.
"My granddaddy, he just bought country records out the a-hole," Swamp remembers. "Every Friday when he came home from the Navy yard he’d stop off and get his records, like 'Mule Train' by Frankie Laine, or 'Riders in the Sky' by Vaughn Monroe."
His first time performing on stage, in fact, was a country song at a talent show when he was six years old. “I did Red Foley’s version of ‘Peace in the Valley’” the old-timer revealed.
On this new album, he is joined by special guests like country-folk legend John Prine, Chris Bierden of Poliça, folk star Sam Amidon and many more stellar musicians.
The lead single and album opener 'Sleeping Without You Is A Dragg' is a lovely, bittersweet country number that sets the tone for what's to follow. The track features piano by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and backing vocals by Jenny Lewis and Channy Leaneagh of Poliça.
It's a haunting, heartfelt number that explores loneliness, and we expect nothing less from the world-weary Swamp Dogg, whose voice still sounds as mellifluous as ever, despite being so battle-worn by Father Time.
The other tracks on this album are just as brilliant — 'Good, Better, Best' is a peppy, infectious number, while 'Family Pain' will etch a hole in your head with its catchy hook, vivid story-telling, and bluesy slide-guitar licks.
'I Lay Awake' and 'I'd Rather Be Your Used To Be' both draw you in with their aching, moody yearning - they're the kind of songs you'd gladly reach for on nights when you're unable to sleep.
'Billy' is a gorgeous, heart-breakingly sweet ode to love and rosy-tinted memory, while 'Good Song' is a great song — it's a perfect deconstruction of the songwriting elements that go into making an amazing, mood-shifting ditty.
Swamp Dogg is excellent when he explores personal relationships and their effect on him. There are narratives about love, of missing the one you love, of compassion, family and friends, and even the kind of love that transcends death.
"I was looking for a new way for Swamp Dogg to go," he explains. "Apart from me singing and writing most of the songs, I didn’t participate — in other words, I told 'em, 'Don't ask me, I wanna see what happens without my influence'. It was hard for me to do, ego-wise."
A band of 14 players, including Vernon, Lee, Bierden and Moogstar among others, provides the background for Swamp's devastating new version of the age-old country classic 'Don’t Take Her (She’s All I Got).'
He also duets with country-folk icon John Prine on two songs — the indelible, psychedelic ballad 'Memories' and the reflective 'Please Let Me Go Round Again' ("It's the first time I seen John since the 1960s!" laughs Swamp).
Originally written and demoed back in his 40s, the album's closer 'Please Let Me Go Round Again' is a plea for one more chance at life, sung with an intense emotionality that can only be pulled off when you have weathered as many storms as Swamp Dogg has.
All in all, this is a fantastic new country record from an old master of the game and is sure to have the genre's younger stars tipping their cowboy hats to Swamp Dogg in hearty approval.
Surveying today's Nashville reality, Swamp sees an opportunity — artistes as divergent as Maren Morris, Darius Rucker, and Lil Nas X are converging in a genre that he once worried might never give him his shot. "I'm anxious because it's like I’ve taken all my money and put it on one horse," he says. "But I believe in this horse."