Steve Earle got slagged off in the country music press for his hard rocking, latter-day MCA offerings Copperhead Road and The Hard Way. He's been vindicated in numerous ways over the years; last but not least is the way contemporary country music has moved toward embracing the big guitars and drum sounds of 1970s heartland rock in the 21st century. Reckless Kelly, from Earle's home state of Texas, seemed to get the rougher rock & roll aspect of Earle's brand of country from the word go. Beginning with Millican in 1998, RK have blazed a trail and created a trademark brand of road-screaming country-rock music that's big on loud guitars, clean popping drums, and tremendously hooky songs. Released in 2008, Bulletproof is Reckless Kelly's standout and apparently the set that puts their name on the wider map. Despite some of its left-leaning lyrics in a highly charged political climate, the band will not be denied its video being screened by GAC and the album entering at number two on Billboard's Heatseekers chart, number 22 on its Country chart, and number 117 on its Top 200 chart. The world of RK -- the band is fronted by guitarist and chief songwriter Willy Braun with brother Cody singing harmony and playing mandolin, fiddle, and harmonica; David Abeyta on lead guitar and lap steel; bassist Jimmy McFeely; and Jay Nazz on drums -- revolves around endless roads inside an America where everything begins to look more desperately the same ("How Was California?" and "God Forsaken Town"). People end up endlessly disappointed and frustrated when encountering the paradox of who their nation says they are and what the nation is in and of itself ("American Blood").
In the midst of all the collective ennui and dislocation is a belief in and desire for love and community that is honest, passionate, and sometimes overreaching -- even if the protagonist has no idea how to define it, he knows it when he sees, or rather, feels it. Check "A Guy Like Me," "Love in Her Eyes," "You Don't Have to Stay Forever," and the truly devastating title track that closes the album. Add to this that Braun's songs are full of ragged, jagged, edgy hooks and dirty-sounding guitars that match the rough-and-tumble gravel in his voice, and what you have is the record that elder statesmen like John Mellencamp and Earle, who inspired this music, would love to make, but have weathered too many storms and acquired too much discerning wisdom of age to pull it off now. In fact, the only act that comes close to realizing this depth of feeling and sometimes dangerous honesty is Arizona's Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers. This set speaks to a generation that loves to have good times but feels like those times may be, to paraphrase Merle Haggard, really over for good. Bulletproof doesn't have to reach for the brass ring, because it's been tarnished; instead, it reaches for whatever is there -- the open highway, the closest thing to companionship and community it can find -- and with a keen skeptic's eye toward promises that have proven empty. All killer, no filler, Bulletproof is Reckless Kelly's masterpiece thus far. And thus far, Nash Vegas hasn't been able to deny these Austin upstarts, because the music transcends its censorious boundaries. Let's hope that continues.