Wet Willie

Keep on Smilin'/Dixie Rock

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Geography alone conspired to lump Wet Willie in with the Southern rockers who waved the rebel flag across the '70s. Sure, they called sweet "Alabama" home, and Macon, GA, was where they gradually built their reputation, but these good ol' boys were attuned to a somewhat different Southern tradition than the likes of the Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker, et al. Sure, the pretty ode to their native state was a pure and patriotic Southern rock ballad, while "Spanish Moss" had that lovely guitar picking so essential to the genre, but the rest of Keep on Smilin', their fourth album, hammers their banner to another flagpole entirely. "Soul Sister" crisply salutes mid-'60s Stax and "Soul Jones" follows that label straight into funk, as does the Southern-fried "Country Side of Life." "Trust in the Lord" heads straight to church, with the band's backing Williettes providing the gospel chorus to the group's boogie revival. "In Our Hearts" is built to boogie as well, but interlaced with contemporary jazz. In contrast, numbers like "Lucy Was in Trouble" and "Don't Wait Too Long" shift into the smoother sounds of the then-current R&B scene. With its unique blend of white rock and black R&B, 1974's Keep on Smilin' proved to be Wet Willie's breakout, taking them for the first (and only time) into the Top 50, and the Willies' follow-up, 1975's Dixie Rock, continued to plow this fertile but rarely tilled musical field. The title track, as one would expect, was precisely as advertised, except for Jimmy Hall's soulful Otis Redding-inspired vocals; "Leona" was the set's other Southern rocker; and "It's Gonna Stop Rainin' Soon" showcased their country skills. Intriguingly, the set's one religious number, "He Set Me Free," is this time delivered via a hymnal chorus, instead of the rollicking gospel featured on their last set. A number of other tracks favors flashy R&B in all its garbs, with funky rhythms raging from the Stax-styled to the Stylistics-inspired. They'd reaped much of this harvest the last time around, but now they sow new fields on the slide guitar-laced "It's Gonna Stop Rainin' Soon" and 12-bar blues of "Mama Didn't Raise No Fools," before sitting down on the porch for a well-deserved rest across the pure fingerpicking and harmonica-laced blues of "Jailhouse Moan." Both these albums were superb, although the latter set inexplicably didn't even break the Top 100. Bringing the pair together on one CD is a no-brainer, capturing the Willies at their most inspired heights.

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