The Rite Stuff
Kentucky singer-songwriter emerges from obscurity with stunning debut disc.
By Michael McCall
JULY 10, 2000: One of the enjoyable aspects of being a fan is marking those moments when something new comes along and knocks you out. Baseball fans of my generation will wax nostalgic about the first time they saw Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Sandy Koufax, or Bob Gibson; movie fans can recount their transition into adulthood upon encountering the films of François Truffaut, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, or Woody Allen; and those who love songs about real life can remember the first time they picked up the needle and found the beginning groove to a song by John Prine, Billy Joe Shaver, Steve Earle, or Tom T. Hall.
As fans age, they start anticipating those times when their obsessions will jerk them from their daily routines and provide some kind of release--and maybe some relevance. You expect that deliverance from certain favored artists, but every once in a while you hear something new, and--pow!--there it is. It's like falling in love again. There are times it seems as if it's happened for the last time, that finally you've become jaded. Then--pow!--it happens again, as it has for me in the last couple of weeks with a new, low-budget CD, Pat Haney's Wrong Rite of Passage.
Haney is a 33-year-old blue-collar guy from rural Kentucky. He's toiled on towboats, in liquor stores, and as an auto mechanic--all experiences that work into the stories he tells about working men from small towns, a fair portion of whom take wrong turns along the way. Haney is currently working the nightshift at a BP station in Bowling Green; as it turns out, Kentucky-born country singer Chris Knight once sold gas and cigarettes over the same counter. Perhaps, then, it's not a coincidence that Haney's songs own the hard-knuckle feel of Knight's tunes.
Haney's songs have a lot more than that, though. They also possess the crisp concision of Guy Clark, the color and detail of Tom T. Hall, the coiled bite of Steve Earle, and the rolled-sleeve sensitivity of Mark Germino. As with all of those men, Haney owns a hoarse voice bolstered by a touch of sweet melodicism, yet he has a natural, lived-in sound all his own. He writes that way too: He tells stories like he's sitting on a porch talking to a friend, and he chooses words that sound as natural to him as speaking. He doesn't waste a line.
Musically, he's just as fresh. Nothing fancy, mind you, but he weaves together mandolin, banjo, Dobro, and upright bass into a jaunty sound that's not quite jug music, not quite folk, not quite bluegrass, and not quite rock. It's country, for sure, but it's as far from country radio as a Kentucky holler is from Music Row. When Haney adds drums and organ, he brings a soulful swagger that carries enormous potential.
While his words are muscular and brawny, he conveys his images with a perceptiveness that transcends any kind of macho posturing. He makes that clear in his album's ripe opening verse: "The liquor that's on my breath / Was drunken down about an hour ago with a girl in a cotton dress. / The woman that's on my mind / Will dance with me in the darkness when the day has been unkind."
That song, "Jealous of the River," uses a waterway and a bluff city to speak of an unspoken envy that eats at the song's narrator. By the time Haney's geographic allegory gets to the chorus, it's clear he's not just talking about rivers and urban centers: "He weeps sometimes when strangers go inside her. / It tears a hole in his muddy soul to see her with someone else."
Even his jauntiest songs deliver good meat. On "Won't Be Over No Coal," to a raucous string-band melody, Haney again nails the opening line: "I was named after my granddad / Who was named for the side of a hill. / He died hauling that black No. 9 / And there's men there dying still." The narrator explains that he also acquired his work ethic from his grandfather, and he believes that busting chops is good for his soul. But while his brother may have followed their elders into the mines, he's not about to head down that hole. "I'm a working fool and I'll die trying," Haney sings, "but it won't be over no coal."
Haney's ballads tend toward hard-bitten loneliness, as in the beautiful "I Should Have Danced With You," in which his protagonist sits alone watching the sun go down and thinking about the love he gave away. Similarly, the tough but aching "Early Fall"--which has a melody that would fit George Strait like a cowboy hat--takes inventory of a solitary man's life, from a year's dust on the tea cups to the untouched piano in the hall.
But when Haney turns up the volume, his outlaw streak gets cranked too. "Dragging Green River Again" is an ominous Southern blues-rocker that would make Ronnie Van Zant crack a sly smile. Here, a fellow recounts the river's recent victims: a local drunk, a gambler who won too much, a philandering woman, a preacher wading out for a baptism. To a stinging lead guitar and a heavy blues rhythm, Haney wails, "There's something about blue lights on green water / That lets a man know just where he stands. / You might could fool your neighbors to think you got it hid / But Green River knows exactly what you did."
The title song boasts even more menace. It begins with a 16-year-old spreading out parts from his GTO in the yard. When his dad remarks that the old car will never run, the kid puts "a greasy fist in his withered face." Before long, the angry young man is on the run, getting meaner and more violent as the miles amass.
Then, in the final stanza, Haney provides a powerful twist, taking the story back to the kid's childhood. The murderous fugitive recalls when his father warned him not to go into the nearby woods, that "they eat alive little kids who don't act the way they should." Instead, the boy headed straight for the trees and stayed the night. "There weren't no fear in me!" Haney howls, closing the song on an ominous note.
Haney's songs run with that kind of fearlessness. That's one reason why his disc seems so far removed from Music Row--which has become increasingly fixated on taking the safest, most calculated risks possible. But if Guy Clark and Steve Earle and Tom T. Hall all managed to succeed by sticking to their vision, then all indications are that Pat Haney will too. He strikes a deep chord on Wrong Rite of Passage, and he's quick to flash that he's got the right stuff.
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