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Bob Cheevers

On Earth As It Is in Austin – 2014 (Private Angel)

Reviewed by Jeff Lincoln

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CDs by Bob Cheevers

It's the elephant in the room: a voice that sounds - in the mid-range anyhow - the same as Willie Nelson. Play Bob Cheevers to 10 folks, and see if it's not the first thing out of their mouths. Cheevers finally addresses it on this new release with a song ("You Sound Just Like Willie"). It's respectful of the Red-Headed Stranger as a country fan might expect/insist.

Cheevers counts him as a friend, too, so he has added incentive to be reverent - although the persistence of the Willie comment must be maddening on some level. By the time we get to Willie appearing in a dream in the title track, and then "Blue Eyes Always On My Mind" (essentially a cobbled-together list of Nelson's hits), the preoccupation is kind of worn out, though. Has he got anything else on his mind?

Of course, you don't write thousands of songs without a strong case to be made here for a distinct identity. "Snake Oil Man" takes us to the swamplands without a plane, and the steel guitar stomper would fit perfectly on any true crime show on TV. One of the most notable things in a Cheevers song is he's rarely satisfied with the same old strummed chords as the musical centerpiece. He brought in a talented crew of friends (Van Wilks is welcome any time) to add lots of sonic atmosphere. Songs that might be ponderous in other hands ("Paradise Lost" or "Creaky Old Bones") mix in some tasty Spanish guitar, accordion or Delta blues licks - and vastly improve in the transformation. Cheevers might get out-sung, but he won't ever lose a Battle of the Bands on arrangement.

Occasionally the lyrical part of a Cheevers song feels stream of conscious, almost improvised. A listener might have this meta feeling like they're hearing the song as it's being conceived. With the standout track "One More Nail," the lyrics begin a little on the nose: "I've been bit by a rattlesnake/I lived to tell/Stung by a scorpion/And it hurt like hell." But then they deepen as the tune goes on - reflecting on a drug binge with a random trucker, he comments more artfully, "I was blinded by all those white lines he'd been crossing."

Cheevers knows unsavory places and sinners well, and he gives a shamanic listening experience hard to find anywhere else. He may sound like Willie, but he has a voice all his own.