“Fuck the record business!” Jerry Williams Jr., better known as Swamp Dogg, exclaims in a recent Noisey documentary. Few people have earned the right to say that more than Williams, who released 22 LPs over 48 years (not including all the singles he released before adopting the Swamp Dogg moniker in 1970)—and didn’t crack a Billboard album chart until 2018. He’s a cult artist if there ever was one.
But unlike some artists half a century into their careers, Williams continues to tweak and experiment with every release. On his 2018 record, Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune, he largely dismissed his soul and funk roots in place of something much more modern, a wholly auto-tuned album that exists somewhere between Travis Scott and Bon Iver, who actually appears throughout. It was a left turn for the ages, an entirely unpredictable record that put a contemporary twist on musical references from throughout Williams’ past five decades.
Instead of building on Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune’s step toward modern sounds, its follow up, Sorry You Couldn’t Make It, opts for a much more organic approach, relying on gorgeous piano ballads and soulful, guitar-solo-fueled Southern rock. Williams refers to this as his “country album,” but it typically strays much closer to the Leon Bridges and Khruangbin Texas Sun end of that spectrum than, say, whatever’s currently big on country radio.
If Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune was influenced by Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, Sorry You Couldn’t Make It reflects another Justin Vernon project: 2013’s Shouting Matches record Grownass Man, a soothing blues-rock album that has largely, and unfairly, been forgotten amidst Vernon’s still-growing back catalog. Vernon returns to Williams’ side again, this time contributing to each of the album’s 10 songs, including relaxed opener “Sleeping Without You Is a Dragg” alongside Jenny Lewis. After a 50-year career chock full of satirical, shocking funk songs about a number of fucked-up topics, “Sleeping Without You Is a Dragg” is surprising in its straightforward honesty. Here, Williams is heartbroken, lamenting a breakup: “Layin’ here on my pillow / Cryin’ all night long / Stereo is playin’ / Some sad, sad songs / It’s natural fact / I can’t live like that / Sleeping without you is a drag,” he croons over an affecting Hammond organ and a mournful blues guitar.
The tempo picks up a bit on “Good, Better, Best” and “Family Pain,” which describes a poor family lost to crack addiction and drug dealing. But most of the record, including the majority of side two, settles into a much slower groove where piano ballads reign supreme. While these songs could be corny in the hands of other artists, Swamp Dogg’s earned sentimentality shines through. “Billy,” the album’s highlight, is a track about the bittersweet circle of life depicted through two people named Billy: a recently-deceased grandfather (“The flowers in your garden are so pretty this time of year / So I brought you some roses / Sorry I stained ‘em with tears”) and a young son (“You oughta see Billy / He looks more like you everyday / He’s too young too remember / I guess it’s better that way”). It all builds up to the track’s tearjerker of a final lyric: “I wish you coulda seen Billy this morning / He took his first step today.”
After a career filled with upbeat funk and R&B, it’s a bit surprising to see the extent to which Williams succeeds with morose country ballads. The light John Prine-assisted “Memories” and the more pained “Please Let Me Go Round Again” are as triumphant as anything on Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune, but in a completely different way. Sorry You Couldn’t Make It represents yet another late-career experiment in a lengthy one filled with them, a back-to-basics approach by an artist who’s seen it all. There’s no telling where Swamp Dogg goes from here, but if his most recent handful of releases are anything to go off of, it’ll likely sound nothing like Sorry You Couldn’t Make It. But it also means that no matter what genre he tries on next, the results will be astounding.