Tracks on his new Mercury album, "Waitin' On Joe" (his first release since a 1996 album on River North), are loosely linked by an underlying thin current of hope, but none of these songs will ever be mistaken for anything like Walt Disney's patented 'happily ever after' stories. If the blues has taught us anything at all, it's that happiness is a welcome exception, but painful sadness is the expected rule.
The album's title track is a perfect example. It begins innocently as the story about a guy who couldn't be on time for an appointment if his very life depended upon it, but ends with this same guy, Joe, getting crushed to death while trying to beat a train across the tracks.
While trains have always acted as handy lyrical metaphors for country songs (and for many other kinds of songs, for that matter), they usually represent positive motion - like a means of escape from some troubling circumstance. Other times, they're the vehicles that steal a loved one away. But in Azar's skeptical imagination, this particular locomotive stands for an entirely more menacing representation.
"As I started writing it, I started thinking about what I wanted to do with my life and what that 'one thing' was," comments Azar, 38. "I started paying attention to a lot of friends of mine, and they were all working toward goals. The train represents the chance that something's going to come along and kill your dream and kill what you want to do. The song - to me - meant what I wanted to do with my life, and how an opportunity might possibly be missed after all the work I've put into it. I think we can all kind of relate to that on some level."
This dark train stands for the unexpected tragedies that visit all lives at one time or another.
But without these dramatic touches, no life story would be truly complete, and without them, no person would be truly human. Through his songs, Azar tries to express the ebb and flow of real human life, both good and bad.
"This album doesn't have any happy endings," Azar admits. "It's the process of life. I can say that honestly, because I feel like - now for the first time - I've actually stepped into real life in the last four or five years and because I've had to see it for what it is. Life is a process, and it's a process of wanting and needing and yearning, and there's really no finish line until it's over. I think this album represents a lot of that."
The hopeful side of this release is best summed up by the song "The Underdog." Its words speak about keeping hope alive - even in the face of dire situations. Life's troubles can beat you up, it seems to suggest, but they can never knock you completely out.
So they say I'm not that strong
And the odds are way too long
Well, I was born to prove them wrong
I'm the underdog
"I think we're all underdogs to somebody, somewhere," Azar explains. "There's never a time in our lives where we're not going to be an underdog to somebody. I grew up a huge fan of movies like 'Hoosiers,' 'Rudy' and all these movies about sporting teams that have no chance on paper. They're 1/15 the size of their opponents; they've got no big scholarship players, and yet they still have a chance to win. And you go, 'Wow, how did that happen?' You can't help but pull for them. And everybody in life is the same way, at times."
Anybody who has had to struggle and fight to make it in the music business can relate to the underdog's plight. Azar also knows this uphill battle well, because he's never quite fit into the mainstream industry's sometimes rigid expectations.
"I know, whether good or bad, I don't sound like anybody else," Azar pronounces. "I know I don't write quite like anybody else because I'm really wordy. You come here (to Nashville), and everybody's saying 'less is better.' But for me, it wasn't the thing. Also, I come from the Mississippi Delta, and that flavor is just injected in every song in some way or another. It's just who I am, and it's real. You can't just find any old song and have me sing it. I think it has to come out of me or be a part of me."
Azar always knew he was a little different from everybody else, which is why it was at the urging of Jim Gallagher Jr., a professional golfer, that he finally decided to make the jump to Nashville in 1993, instead of moving to Music City based upon expert advise from somebody in the music business.
His debut album's title, "Heartbreak Town," proved to be a prophetic one since his label shut down shortly before his album was released. But like all true underdogs, Azar seems to thrive on such adversity, and these career trials only made him work harder at improving his craft.