Wild In The Backyard (Epic)
Don Henry

By Paul Moffett

When Alan Rhody brought Don Henry to Louisville for a special songwriters' showcase in 1987, Henry's claim to fame consisted of two songs that charted for other artists, "Heart Vs Heart" by Pake McEntire and "Blue Highway," recorded by John Conlee. In the cruel world of struggling songwriters, these are nice but not heavy credentials.

Then the boyish Henry climbed onstage with his acoustic guitar and convinced many that he would be a force to be reckoned with in the future, with songs like "Mr. God," "Cadillac Avenue," "Harley" and "Into a Mall." I relate this story not to tout the prescience of Louisville songwriters but to reveal a bias: I've been a fan of Don Henry's songwriting and singing ever since that showcase.

That disclaimer tended to, here's why I feel that way: his songs are like that perfect little piece of art you found in your local art fair that turns out to be an early Picasso. Thereafter, it's hard not to feel somewhat smug.

This album has many (but not all) of my favorite Henry songs, including those mentioned above. A couple were written with Carol Ann Etheridge, a collaborative effort that seems to work well. All the songs reveal that both Henry and Etheridge appear to have mastered the craft of songwriting as taught in Nashville, with colorful lines effortlessly drawing pictures, twisting and compressing familiar expressions into fresh and catchy phrases. In the tune "No Such Love," a commentary on the pointlessness of searching for a fairy-tale prince, women are advised "don't count your ponies 'til the clock strikes twelve." From "Into a Mall," there is this line: "There used to be gold in them thar these/purple mountains majesties."

Of course, cleverness in the unending search for hit songs is a lot like Twinkies: all sugar, no substance and ultimately repellent. Fortunately, Don Henry is exceptionally insightful for a young man and his wit serves to enlighten rather than merely dazzle.

The arrangements are Nashville-songwriter tasty, serving up the songs rather than showing off the musicians' licks. Such arrangements demonstrate the real skill of players who know that music is as much what is left out as what is put in. With players like Mark O'Connor and Jonell Mosser, of course, there isn't a need to prove a thing.

Still, producers Ray Kennedy and Henry couldn't miss the occasional opportunity for the little musical joke. During the transition from "White House Keys," in which the singer finds the lost keys to the Oval Office dropped as the Reagans left the White House, to "Beautiful Fool," a song about Martin Luther King from the eyes of a kid at the time, there is the faint hint of the Hendrix version of the national anthem followed by the reverse cymbal crash the Beatles' used to introduce "A Day in the Life."

Buy this recording for yourself. Buy it for a friend. Send a message to the record companies that the public (that's us) wants and appreciates quality.

There's nothing wrong with feeling a bit smug about finding this kind of quality. You've got my permission