Okay, so this six-piece San Francisco-based honky-tonk combo pretty much has a handful of notes in its repertoire. And maybe there aren't many surprises, musically or lyrically, on Alameda County Line, the group's third full-length release (and the second to be produced by Dave "King of California" Alvin); this is the sound of revivalist Califor-nigh-ay country from start to finish. That's still no reason to knock the album, which is a bouncy ride through S.F.'s growing country scene and a journeyman showpiece from a band that's honed its skills admirably well in just a few years.
You could argue that a group that spends its time learning to replicate the licks and melodies of its forebears, to the exclusion of taking the music to new places, is simply reinventing the wheel. Certainly there's some truth to that, but like Charles Mingus used to say, even if you only play in one key, you can still be a mother in C natural. Red Meat's bailiwick is truck-stop country along the lines of Buck Owens' Buckaroos or Ray Price, highly produced and layered with pedal steel, and it does what it does in a straightforward and no-frills fashion. But 12 of the 16 songs here (three are unlisted) are originals, mostly written by guitarist/fiddle player Scott Young, and they're fine, simply fine examples of the honky-tonk tradition in which Red Meat cuts its chops. Even if Young's lyrics are middle-of-the-road for the most part, you'll still catch a gem like "Tablecloths with checkered squares/Casseroles in Corningwares" on "Catfish Fry" often enough to hold your attention. Jill Olsen, Red Meat's bassist and resident Minnie Pearl (check out those prescription glasses!), delivers the album's sweetest moment in the appropriately titled "Sweet Song." Pedal steel whiz Max Butler contributes the title cut, a lament over recent living-space price markups and the subsequent exodus of artists and musicians from the Bay Area. (Come to think of it, that is a twist on the genre; Buck Owens never wrote a song about the impact of high-tech business takeovers on a community's music scene. Duly noted.)
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Lead singer Smelley Kelley (okay, I'll play) has a voice box perfectly tuned to Red Meat's musical idiom, all road swagger and confident drawl, probably a holdover from the Iowan heritage he shares with Olson and Young. Fill it out with Michael Montalto on accordion and Les James on skins, and you've got 18 wheels' worth of straight-ahead West Coast country, without any of that pop-crossover nonsense à la Shania Whatshername . . . or that fat guy, the one who sustained a massive head injury and thought he was a rock star for two weeks last year. At any rate, the members of Red Meat sure enough know their roots, which is more than you could say for as many better-known country names these days. Maybe instead of "revivalists," Red Meat are simply "classicists" -- by default, if not by choice.