White Cat Records
Houstonians with an ear for intelligent folk-flavored music have likely crossed paths with Jack Saunders over the past 20-plus years. He moved here in 1976 and eventually established himself on the regional singer-songwriter circuit via his collaboration with longtime partner Shake Russell. As a duo Saunders and Russell released six CDs between 1989 and 1995. Since then Saunders has gone his own way, issuing a self-titled solo disc in 1996. Now, with Blue Shadows he reasserts his artistic independence, musical versatility and knack for crafting solid songs.
This package offers 12 compositions, all written or co-written by Saunders, plus an instrumentally spiced-up reprise of the opening track, which closes the album. The songs range in stylistic influence from pure folk to pop to R&B to gospel to blues to honky-tonk to rock and back, all highlighting Saunders's clear tenor and guitar work (acoustic, National resonator and electric). Backed by various sidemen and guest vocalists (and served well by clean production that keeps the voice and lyrics up front), Saunders comes across as an engaging storyteller drawing from both personal experience and observations of the human condition.
Make that the Texan condition. For some listeners the strength, for others the weakness, of this album may well be its thematic concentration on the mythic Texas experience. Sure, many of the songs, such as the blues shuffle title track, make no reference to any particular place. But the composition that surfaces twice, "Texas in My Blood," plays the Lone Star card for all it's worth, and then some.
Saunders reveals his true colors on "Texas in My Blood," which, it seems, is his answer to Russell's popular-to-the-point-of-inducing-nausea mid-'80s song "Travellin' Texas." What sets the Saunders composition apart from Russell's is the touch of personal biography in the lyrics. Tracing his story of immigration from out of state, Saunders takes us first to Dallas, then Austin, before ending up in Houston. Along the way there's enough vivid imagery to make it work but also the occasional cliché and abstraction to trigger a wince or two.
The chorus typifies the latter: "Now I feel like I'm home / In a land I've grown to love / No matter where I'll roam / I'll always have Texas in my blood." Along with obligatory references to bluebonnets, sunsets and Austin's music scene, it serves up enough of the cookie-cutter ideas to make the state's tourist commission proud.
But Saunders ultimately saves the song, and arguably, the album, by also making us see things we've not been conditioned to expect already. For instance, recalling hot summers spent swimming at Barton Springs, one line focuses, like a telephoto lens, on "the lime dust caking on my naked feet." And when he takes us to Houston, which welcomed him "with open arms" (wince), we actually end up a little farther down the road: "And you can go down to the seawall when the surf is green / And catch more speckled trout than you care to clean." Interesting.
With the exception of the social commentary of "What's a Child to Do," which addresses poverty, teen pregnancy and other facets of "big-city blues," the remaining songs are mainly about the ups and downs of male-female relationships. Familiar territory for sure. But Saunders pulls it off with more high points than low, and for that he deserves appreciation from song lovers everywhere -- even those poor souls who aren't privileged to live in Texas.