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Mark Stuart and the Bastard Sons

Bend in the Road – 2009 (Texacali)

Reviewed by Rick Bell

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CDs by Mark Stuart and the Bastard Sons

The former leader of the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash has shortened the band name and relocated from San Diego to Austin, but it hasn't altered Mark Stuart's catchy, hard-driving alt-country sound. If anything, perhaps the tightened moniker and new digs have primed Stuart's determination to make the next step commercially with this 12-song collection. There's a decided Brooks & Dunn turbo-tonk vibe on Power of a Woman and Seven Miles to Memphis, while he adds an earthy Hal Ketchum feel to Best Thing. Pulsing keyboards and a jangly acoustic guitar provides the requisite nod to John Mellencamp on Way Down the Road.

More than good imitations of several country and rock heavyweights, the album is a lyrical coalescence of styles, vocally and musically as Stuart establishes himself as a country up-and-comer. His individual talent radiates on the 11 songs he wrote (Billy Joe Shaver's I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal is the lone cover) - particularly the sultry southern cooker Gone Like a Raven, while Fireflies and Restless Ramblin' Man are an all-out joyrides.

Virtually every artist draws comparisons to their musical forefathers early in their careers, and Stuart is no different. Yet Stuart's latest offers plenty to define an artist establishing his own identity.