The Notorious Cherry Bombs

The Notorious Cherry Bombs (Universal South)

Music Reviews The Notorious Cherry Bombs
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The Notorious Cherry Bombs

I suppose a good way to describe The Notorious Cherry Bombs is to say they are to Nashville what the Rat Pack was to Las Vegas. Or maybe the original Ocean’s Eleven would be a more apropos analogy, with Rodney Crowell as the Frank Sinatra-like ringleader of a musical caper reuniting—after more than 20 years—the core members of his old late-’70s-to-early-’80s-touring outfit, The Cherry Bombs.

This group is not just one of the best, but quite possibly one of the hippest platoons country music has ever seen. Even apart from their history together, any album featuring a band that includes Crowell, Vince Gill, Tony Brown and Richard Bennett warrants attention. But with that history and camaraderie informing virtually every note they play, the now appropriately dubbed “Notorious” Cherry Bombs have created a work that’s sheer joy is cause for celebration by any listener interested in true-blue American music—country or otherwise.

Having begun as a one-night-only collaboration for a songwriter awards ceremony honoring Crowell last fall, this project clearly blossomed into more than just a busman’s holiday for all concerned. Already in the midst of a creative renaissance beginning with 2001’s Houston Kid and deepening with last year’s Fate’s Right Hand, Crowell shows he’s back at the top of his game on tracks like the evocative ballad “Making Memories of Us,” which could have easily fit on his ’88 benchmark Diamonds and Dirt, and the smoldering, temptation-themed “Dangerous Curves,” co-authored with co-frontman Gill, whose own contributions may be the greatest story of this entire affair.

If the veteran star’s latest solo album Next Big Thing looked at contemporary country’s pop-leaning face both in jest (its wry title track) and in earnest (the stark “Young Man’s Town”), Gill’s work here is a powerful reminder of the ever-sharp skills he continually brings to the table: soaring vocals (a high lonesome lead on “Heart of a Jealous Man,” an Everly Brothers-style harmony atop Crowell on “Sweet Little Lisa”); tradition-steeped guitar solos (a touch of Chuck Berry on the boogie-woogie-ing “On the Road to Ruin,” a nod to Luther Perkins on the “Big River”-like “Oklahoma Dust”); and subtle yet deft songwriting (the honky-tonk ballad, “Forever Someday”).

While Crowell and Gill provide the group’s primary fireworks, the rest of the Cherry Bombs are not to be overlooked for their role in supplying the sparks. Twangmaster Richard Bennett and steel guitarist Hank DeVito anchor the watertight rhythm section, which also includes the group’s “new” members—longtime Crowell bassist Michael Rhodes and studio-ace Eddie Bayers on drums, taking the places of, respectively, original band members Emory Grody, Jr. and the late Larry Londin. (As stated before, the Cherry Bombs were one astoundingly talented team.) And then there’s Universal South label exec Tony Brown behind the piano where you could find him before he became the head of MCA Nashville and the most successful country music producer of the ’80s and ’90s.

It’s a special treat to hear the gospel-steeped Brown—whose career dates back to accompanying Elvis Presley in the mid-’70s, and who nearly died last year from injuries suffered in a head-first accidental fall—dusting off his estimable chops as a keyboardist and clearly having a perfectly grand time. He even lets his hair down enough to toss off a hilarious honky-tonk preacher rap at the album’s close. It’s clear he’s got the fever, as do Vince “Dino” Gill and all the Notorious Cherry Bomb Rat Packers. Now if they can just heist Music City.