Chris Shiflett has, for around 20 years, been the guitarist in two different bands, with two vastly different levels of notoriety: Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, the greatest punk rock cover band ever (seriously, they are), and another one you’re more likely to have heard of, the Foo Fighters. Most recently, he’s set off on yet another path, a solo project, and – as much as I love his contributions to the two aforementioned bands – it couldn’t be more in my wheelhouse. It’s alt-country, it’s Americana, but I think it might best be described as some hardcore honky-tonk. Let’s say some Clash mixed with in with the (Johnny) Cash. His 2017 album, “West Coast Town,” created with the hottest, most forward-leaning producer in all of country/rock, Dave Cobb, was a start-to-finish tour de force of modern Outlaw Country twang with a little added bite. At just the right times, and in just the right ways, the countrified feel and familiar high and lonesome pedal steel can give way to some fuzzy electric guitar clamor. As Rolling Stone put it in its album review, Shiflett “flawlessly blends blue-collar country punk with a catchy Bakersfield bounce,” and “authentically straddles the line between vintage country cool and the boundary-blurring spirit of modern Americana.”
Shiflett’s just-released 2019 record, “Hard Lessons,” also produced by wunderkind Cobb, is an outstanding follow-up and another great listen, though seeming to lean more in a rock than roots direction (one notable exception being the deep-fried duet ‘The One You Go Home To’ with Sirius Outlaw Country’s own sweetheart of the radio, Elizabeth Cook). I’d counsel the country-tinged devotees and self-identifying honky-tonk heroes to start with “West Coast Town,” and perhaps with its jangly, riff-heavy lead track, ‘Sticks & Stones.’ And then next, with the record’s third entry, ‘Goodnight Little Rock,’ an unglamorous, three-to-a-motel-bed tale of life on the road – from a man who for two decades has alternated between that and the luxe life afforded by one of rock’s biggest bands of the millenium, yet has chosen to return to the former. Shiflett threads the song with a repeating, jaunty guitar line as he depicts the well-worn DIY path of “Another half-empty VFW hall, another shitty PA, another night of no one at all,” until the tune reaches the 1:45 mark when Shiflett disrupts the lighthearted tone with one of the most jarring solo break entries in my memory, throttling the happy-go-lucky feel with 25-seconds of phenomenally filthy fuzz. That’s, as Rolling Stone describes, “Chris Shiflett upholding a long tradition of bringing a little punk to country.” I’d bet the rhinestone snaps on Shiflett’s western shirt that the Man In Black himself would eagerly approve.