Ask longtime country music fans what one ingredient stands out amongst the others in that genre and you’ll likely hear a certain answer more than the rest; the storytelling. On his self-titled debut release, which hits stores on August 21, newcomer JT Hodges offers up a rare collection of characters and stories with a brilliant touch for powerful, straight-to-the-core descriptions.
JT, originally from Fort Worth, Texas, wrote eight of the album’s 10 songs and goes far beyond the basic requirements of delivering accurate portrayals. With a sound that recalls such varied influences as the Eagles and Bob Seger, JT’s finely-crafted lyrics add multiple layers to words and phrases.
Over laid-back acoustic guitar, finger snaps and an ultra-catchy hook provided with a warm whistle, mid-tempo summer song “Hunt You Down” toes the line between nostalgic and seedy as JT reveals such descriptions as a barroom darker than the Ace of Spades. JT’s voice is soulful and holds more than just a touch of R&B as he recounts a wild evening spent with a mysterious girl. On the unflinchingly honest “Sleepy Little Town,” he sheds light on the mysteries that are sometimes hiding just beneath the surface. With palm-muted electric guitars building the tension, three separate stories detail drug dealing, abuse and teen pregnancy between a big, pop-influenced chorus offsetting the themes.
Songs here are straight to the point. In fact, timed-out, eight of the album’s tracks fall between 3:16 and 3:42 in length and the result is a tight and focused collection. The driving album-opener “Rather Be Wrong than Lonely” explodes in a melodic chorus full of harmonies recalling Roy Orbison while the song’s structure leaves no room to spare. On “Goodbyes Made You Mine,” each instrument falls in place while JT displays an ability to develop melodies. Starting with the quick recitation of the verse, he gradually opens the vocal rhythm through an engaging pre-chorus that anticipates the flowing refrain. The timing here is special and gives the love song its urgent feel.
On the jangly, alt-country leaning “Leaving Me Later,” sharp songwriting expressing complicated matters is showcased. I love to play with fire, JT sings before adding with melancholy self-awareness, The more she keeps on burnin’ me/the more I give into my desire. With the rolling chorus here being one of the record’s finest passages, this is the sort of song you wish was just a little bit longer because – like its muse – it leaves too soon.
Country Music Hall of Famer Vince Gill joins on the ballad “When I Stop Crying.” Though sad piano sets the tone, the song is really an acknowledgement that pain is part of the healing process. I’m gonna walk ‘til I can run, JT sings through the optimistic chorus while Vince adds dynamic harmonies. Later in the song, Vince comes through with a guitar solo that expertly matches the song’s feel.
JT shows many different aspects of himself as an artist on the project, yet it’s all held together with a talent for picking the right words at the right time. The obsessive “Right About Now” hinges on repetition while subtle shifts of phrase add cutting depth. And on the swampy, stomping “Green Eyes Red Sunglasses,” the fixation on those eyes drives the entire song. It’s all about the storytelling, and on his debut, JT sets himself apart with a compelling collection that demands another listen.
Key Tracks – “Hunt You Down,” “When I Stop Crying,” “Leaving Me Later,” “Green Eyes Red Sunglasses”