Billy Ray Reynolds

Whole Lot of Memories (Compadre Records)

Well, at least no one could accuse Billy Ray Reynolds of politicking for a solo career. After decades as an itinerant songwriter (Johnny Cash, Tanya Tucker, John Conlee), a bit-part actor and, most famously, a guitar player and backup singer for Waylon Jennings, the 59-year-old is finally making his proper debut.

To be honest, his long-quiet voice comes out in flat, reedy tones, but what it lacks in range it more than makes up for in authenticity and experience. Listeners will believe him completely when he spins tales like those of the dueling poolroom con artists in "Old Pro," the romantic gambler of "Steel Ball" and the autobiographical poor boy of "Saratoga." These story-songs feature a lot of traveling, trains and vagabondage -- kind of like Reynolds's own life. But rather than imbue the music with the fiery "Outlaw" country sound he's most associated with, he opts for a more wistful, reflective tone in both lyrics and sound. Sparingly produced by Dan Tyler and Lou Bradley, the volume and timbre are kept mostly low; the stray steel guitar run, brushed drums and acoustic pickin' give the whole affair a relaxed feel.

In the record's lightest moment, Reynolds is thrown out of his abode (along with his Stetson hat and Martin guitar) in "She's Cleaning the House." And according to the liner notes, once again there's a real-life parallel (in fact, he had multiple experiences to draw from). He also manages a rough-hewn, sexy sound on "Whatever Turns You On" and "Number One Thrill" (a duet with Bonnie Bramlett). But the finest moment comes, it's not surprising, on "Atlanta's Burning Down," the title track to Dickey Betts's third album and arguably Reynolds's best-known number. Told from the perspective of a Confederate soldier who deserts Lee's army to return to a lover in the city of ruins, it has more genuine heartache, poignancy and gravity than nine of today's "Hot Country" top ten.

Some of the material falls victim to cliché: "Tumbleweed," "Devil on the Run" and the title track are cut from generic C&W cloth. And the purported duet with Merle Haggard, "Two Step Me," features the Stranger chiming in (probably via modem) on only one chorus. Still, there's plenty of truth in the title Whole Lot of Memories, and overall Reynolds's debut is a fulfilling effort in the true sense of the troubadour.

 
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