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Baltimore honky tonker Arty Hill acquits himself

The Plough and the Stars, Cambridge, Mass., August 2, 2008

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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Baltimore is not exactly known as a hot bed of honky tonk music, but if Arty Hill had his way, that would change. And the singer acquitted himself quite well in the first of two sets, mixing originals and covers.

Hill recently released "Bar of Gold" on the small, but musically solid Cow Island label in Boston, and it's a fine example of honky tonk music. While that disc was recorded with the Long Gone Daddys, Hill opted to bring along a New York trio, the Lonesome Billys, for this gig.

Hill's vocals do justice to the songs, though his singing isn't particularly unique. But at least his heart was certainly in the right place. "Hall of Fame of Nothing" was a solid honky tonk weeper. "Jackson Shake," from his self-released 2005 disc, "Back on the Rail," picked it up a few notches, perhaps the best song of the set. And in the honky tonk tradition of beers in my tears, Hill also mixed it up with a sense of humor. To wit, "I Might Have Been a Lawyer (But I Couldn't Pass the Bar)," a cute, but on target song from "Bar of Gold" and "I Ate Through the Jail" with some good guitar licks from Hill.

Hill, who moonlights as a lawyer in the daytime, paid homage to those who came before him with readings of Ray Price's "Crazy Arms," where he sounded a bit worn vocally, but that's okay since he wasn't going to top Price anyway. He turned in faithful readings of Hag's "Mama Tried" and Bob Wills' "Roly Poly," not reinventing the wheel. The latter featured solid guitar work from Hill.

One of the key strengths throughout was the pedal steel player Jonathan Gregg. He made that instrument sing time and again, adding a number of fast, but taut runs to really power the sound. Interestingly enough, Hill only played with the trio less than a handful of times before, so the cohesiveness was particularly remarkable.

Whether or not Baltimore adopts Hill and honky tonk doesn't matter so much. What does matter is that Hill now has his music out there and deserves a hearing.