"She had a way with loneliness, as fast as you could cry," John Howie Jr. sings on "Should Have Known," and you're surely thinking, "You WOULD know, Mr. Howie. You would know." Indeed, the North Carolinian has exhibited more than "a way" with sad songs and honky tonk heartbreak since forming the Two Dollar Pistols in 1996 and now with the Rosewood Bluff. "Everything Except Goodbye" is his new group's sophomore effort, and it's dedicated to the late Pistols and Bluff drummer, Matt Brown, who Howie also pays touching tribute to on the album-ending "Blue."
Howie, who used to host a show called "The Music Formerly Known as Country" on community radio, offers some of his best songwriting to date here, demonstrating a deep appreciation of the well-knowns and never-knowns of country music's past. He has reached master status in his ability to take clichés or familiar phrases ("Nobody Moves, Nobody Gets Hurt, "If She Stops to Think About It," co-written with Joe Swank, and "The Man I Used to Be") and alter them in interesting and clever - and honest - ways. The defiant "A Hell of a Note," on which Howie sings, "the land of milk and honey, man, it's got me on my knees," is an album and career highlight.
His singing also is in fine form. The Bluff are buff (including Southern Culture on the Skids drummer Dave Hartman who stepped in for the recording), and Howie seem inspired throughout - especially on the low-down, groovy "The Wash-Up" ("the tears they shed never fill a child's cup") a rollicking take on Mickey Newbury's "Why You Been Gone So Long" and "Suspicion," on which pedal steel guitarist Nathan Golub shines. The music known as country sounds really good in Howie's hands.