Like a skilled novelist, Rick Shea sets picturesque scenes with the 10 songs comprising "Sweet Bernardine." Many come from Shea's personal experiences, such as Mexicali Train, about a locomotive journey the singer/songwriter once took to try and escape bad memories, whereas John Shea from Kenmare speaks of his great-great-grandfather's Civil War trials and tribulations.
Sonically, "Sweet Bernardine" can be quite stark in places. Shea doesn't color his compositions with a whole lot instrumental camouflage, but instead chooses to keep his Merle Haggard-esque voice dead center. The sad Gregory Ray Deford is a prime example of this approach, as multi-instrumentalist Shea only spruces it up only a tad with added Dobro. Vocalist Nicole Gordon also brings an Emmylou Harris-like vocal harmony beauty to the track, a nice touch.
Gordon is far saucier during Shake It Little Sugaree, an electric guitar rocker that sounds like something Dave Alvin might have worked up either solo or with The Blasters (Shea has played in Alvin's band). Danny McGough's organ backing also provides this track with an ever so slight sense of menace.
Shea also includes two covers, Honky Tonk Blues and Streamline Cannonball. Even though it's fun to hear what Shea has done with these old country songs, it makes one wish a little bit that he'd used these two slots for two more songs of his own. Shea really gets to dig into some personal space on most of this album, and it's a place worth further exploration. Therefore, these cover song side trips are a bit of a distraction.
Distractions aside, however, it sure is a pleasure to hear one of Southern California's best kept secrets on one of his finest albums to date. Whatever you do, please don't keep this little gem of an album a secret.