To look at him, you'd think Redd Volkaert would snap the neck of a Telecaster in half the moment he tried to get flashy with the left-hand arpeggios. He's a big guy, Volkaert, with thick, tattooed forearms and fingers each about as wide as a single fret. But there's nothing clumsy about his guitar work, which is as lean and precise as you'd want to hear. His second full-length, No Stranger to a Tele, is what they used to call a "musician's album" back before Dave Matthews ruined the term for everybody.
Volkaert is a whole bunch of walking contradictions, or at least a bunch of shambling conundrums. A transplanted British Columbian who left Alberta for L.A. when he was still a kid, Volkaert spent years in the trenches doing session and demo work, building up the kind of reputation that only other musicians appreciate. In 1990, he moved to Nashville, where he worked live and in the studio with artists like Ray Price, Lacy J. Dalton and Dale Watson, and in 1997 Merle Haggard asked him to join his road band, the Strangers, which is where Volkaert's played ever since. He's currently a dominant presence in the Austin scene, where he's been living for about a year, when he's not on the road with Haggard.
He's a man who looks like he might be a scarred-knuckled logger playing lead country guitar; a physically imposing gentleman, to say the least, working some of the lightest and prettiest notes in recent memory. Volkaert is worth hearing in any context, but No Stranger to a Tele more than lives up to its title, delivering 14 tracks of yeoman music played on Volkaert's constant companion, his 1953 Telecaster. It's an eclectic collection, start to finish: The title cut is a Les Paul-style workout, each note clear as a mountain brook and just as playful, where songs such as "Before She Made Me Crawl" and his cover of Johnny Bush's "Conscience Turn Your Back" are straight-ahead country weepers that'd do Hag proud. Haggard often hands Volkaert the mike in concert, and it's easy to hear why. The big man sings a fair turn, in a hearty and confident voice that delivers originals and covers like they came from the same weathered songbook.
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But it's the high-speed workouts here that really make No Stranger to a Tele worth the ticket price. Jazzy numbers like "Chee-Z" and "Rubberdance," along with blues workouts like "3 1/2 Minutes Left," remind us of a time when you didn't have to pedal the hell out of your guitar work to get noticed, when speed didn't mean squat unless you also had melodic sense. Every real guitar hound on your block is going to be raving about this record soon enough, but Redd Volkaert's talent deserves wider appreciation than only among the aficionados. No Stranger to a Tele is worth much more than a casual listen.