It’s an indelible part of country music mythology. Right next to the stories of the country’s hayseeds rising from the rural landscape to become superstars, there are parallel stories of singers and songwriters who had a knack for being nationally recognized names, but due to certain circumstances, are sitting in half-empty bars. somewhere, singing their sad songs to sometimes no one. As depressing as the situation may seem, when you discover one of these unknown artists and listen to their songs, it can be magical. And sometimes history corrects what is happening here and now.
If there was one to epitomize this unfair and often finicky selection process in country music, it would be Hellbound Glory’s Leroy Virgil. Before Sturgill Simpson, Tyler Childers and Zach Bryan got arena-level hype, it was Hellbound Glory that set the country underground world on fire, even though they were still playing half-empty bars. But maybe Leroy was smarter than the rest of us by staying mostly obscure. As he used to sing, “Getting rich would be the last thing I would ever need. Drugs are all I would spend. I would be dead before too long.
Staying underground is how Leroy Virgil survived, even though the blazing music of Hellbound Glory’s early albums easily eclipsed the production of his peers and put them at the pinnacle of appreciation for country fans who dug deeper. deeply. The new album The Immortal Hellbound Glory: Nobody Knows You finds Leroy Virgil embracing his sad bastard situation as he transforms from a young scrapper from the greasy streets of Reno looking to ignite the scenes, to a veteran country singer/songwriter living in the mountains outside of town with a little more wisdom on his brow, and worn gravel in his voice.
nobody knows you sees Leroy Virgil move away from some of his writing of witty one-liners and self-indulgent characters to more story-based compositions. “Can’t Wait to Never See You Again” and “Word Gets Around” take classic approaches to country songwriting, but in a way that is still distinct for Leroy. But the album also finds a more folksy approach to songwriting. “13 Corners” about the winding mountain roads of the Western interior weaves a cautionary tale more revealing of the writing of the 50s and 60s, while “Evacuation Song” about the fire that destroyed the city of Paradise and killing 85 people in 2018 is something Woody Guthrie could have written if he was still around.
But this album also remains distinctly Leroy Virgil and Hellbound Glory. Leroy wrote these songs to blend with his deep voice, and they sound like they were lifted from Leroy’s real-world experiences. And although the album is a little more low-key and mature compared to his last two loud albums produced by Shooter Jennings Pinball and pure foam, nobody knows you ends with Leroy reminding you that the party isn’t over for him with the penultimate song declaring “Didn’t Die Young (Ain’t Done Trying)”.
Because Hellbound Glory these days is so much about its longtime frontman, the musical treatment given to these songs is more what Shooter’s studio gang came up with, as opposed to a signature sound that defines this band. Gone are the days of dueling Telecasters reminiscent of Jerry Reed or the aggressive fills of original drummer Chico. But the people who showed up did a great job of bringing these songs to life, while understanding the dirty dive bar vibe that Leroy was looking for here, with little comments from Leroy on the tracks, as if he performed live.
There’s a reason Leroy chose the old blues standard “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down” to be this record’s de facto title track. Nobody can know Leroy Virgil and Hellbound Glory beyond the circles that hide somewhere like Saving Country Music. But Leroy knows himself, and where he is in his career, embracing his role as the neglected soul who may never have “made it,” but who is loved by those lucky enough to know. He is the embodiment of the great unknown legend of country music. But as we’ve seen in the past, sometimes those unknowns don’t stay that way forever. They are the ones who will eventually reveal themselves as the true icons of an era.
1 3/4 guns raised (8/10)
– – – – – – – – – –