By Eleni P. Austin
Separately, they’re Willie Heath Neal and Kira Annalise. Together, they’re The Waymores, and they achieve an intimate and playful vocal alchemy that echoes antecedents like Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, George Jones and Tammy Wynette or Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn.
Willie’s hardscrabble childhood is the stuff that Country songs are made of. Born in a police car, he spent time in foster care. But his mom was a talented singer who introduced him to the music of Patsy Cline, Elvis Presley and Hank Williams, Sr. To escape home, he joined the Navy. He began writing his own songs and started a band. After completing his service, he played upright bass, cycling through a series of different bands that played Punk, Country, Honky-Tonk and Psychobilly. Soon enough, he was fronting his own band, Damned Ol’ Opry, whose sound, he characterized as rowdy Country Rock. All told, they recorded five albums, and built up a loyal following on the road.
Conversely, Kira didn’t begin performing professionally until she was a young mom. She wrote, played and sang in a plethora of bands. Ironically, the band that was basically her side gig, an eclectic combo known as The No Count Palookas, also included Willie. Recognizing an undeniable musical connection, the duo began collaborating away from their full-time bands. It evolved slowly, but a romance blossomed between them, and the pair have been a couple for about 15 years.
Rather than be out on the road with their separate projects, Willie and Kira pooled their resources and formed The Waymores. Their long-player debut, Weeds, arrived in 2019. Somehow, they came to the attention of legendary producer Shel Talmy. The Chicago native made his bones in L.A. studios working with songwriting teams like Lieber & Stoller, artists like Herb Alpert and the famed session musicians dubbed The Wrecking Crew.
He arrived England just ahead of the British Invasion. By early 1964, The Beatles worldwide popularity opened the doors for everyone from The Rolling Stones, The Animals and The Hollies, to Gerry & The Pacemakers, Cilla Black and The Swinging Blue Jeans. Shel ended up producing epochal hits like The Who’s “My Generation,” Chad & Jeremy’s “Summer Song,” The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” and The Easybeats’ “Friday On My Mind,” among countless classics. Intrigued by The Waymores, he wound up producing their Stone Sessions EP and was back behind the recording console for their brand new effort. Their third long-player, Greener Pastures, is a canny mix of originals and telling covers. The album kicks into gear with a Buck Owens favorite, “Under Your Spell Again.” Player-piano notes, shivery pedal steel, sugary guitars and agile bass are tethered to a clip-clop gait. His rough-hewn rasp cradles her knowing alto on the chorus, but they take turns on the verses, offering a compelling she said; “I swore the last time that you let me down that I wouldn’t see you if you came around, but I can’t tell my heart what’s right or wrong, and I’ve been lonely so long.” Then there’s an antithetical he said; “Well, everybody tells me that I’m a fool, that I never should have put my faith in you, and way down deep inside I guess I know it’s true, but no one else can make me feel the way you do.”
Although The Waymores’ sound continues to draft off the classic Honky-Tonk style established in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, they step out of their comfort zone on a couple of tracks, “But I Don’t” and “Flashbacks Of A Fool.” The former is built on a lilting Pop arrangement that recalls Elton John’s early ‘70s songs. Over a see-saw beat, rippling piano runs, plangent guitars and willowy pedal steel, the pair trade bitter bon mots like “If you had lips, you’d return all my kissin’ but you don’t and you don’t know what you’re missin” and “If you had ears, you could hear me cryin’ but you don’t and you can’t hear our love dyin.’”
The latter opens with a hint of Gospel heft as harmonies intertwine on the mantra-like mea culpa “I’m a fool, I’m a fool, I’m a fool, I’m a fool.” Sparkly piano is matched by strumming acoustic guitar, a shuffle-rhythm and a sly, handclap beat. Feelings of regret and recrimination are magnified by the realization that “Where I found my home is with a good man gone bad.” Feathery piano notes lattice muscular electric guitar and searing pedal steel on the break mirroring the lyrical ambivalence.
The Waymores recognize that, done correctly, Honky-Tonk music feels timeless, no matter when it was written. Going back more than half a century, they offer their spin on the Marty Robbins weeper, “Don’t Worry.” High lonesome pedal steel wraps around burnished piano, plaintive guitars and a sturdy backbeat. Willie is front and center on first verse, adopting a macho pose as he passive-aggressively reassures an ex; “Don’t worry ‘bout me, it’s all over now, though I may be blue, I’ll manage somehow, love can’t be explained, can’t be controlled, one day it’s warm, next day it’s cold.” As keening pedal steel shadows Willie’s contained ache, cascading piano notes silhouette Kira’s noblesse oblige; “Sweet, sweet love, I want you to be as happy as I, when you loved me, I’ll never forget you, your sweet memory, it’s all over now, don’t worry about me.”
Leaping ahead, closer to the end of the 20th century, the pair offer a rollicking take on John Prine’s “You Got Gold.” A twangy two-step, it’s powered by thready organ notes, slippery guitars, angular bass and a thwocking beat. Nuanced lyrics like “Is there enough space between us to keep us honest and true, why is it so hard to just sit in the yard and stare at the sky so blue?” plumb the eternal disconnect between the need for forever love and companionship and a yearning for independence. Across two instrumental breaks, sinewy guitars sidle around swirly organ and weepy pedal steel. As Willie and Kira trade the final two verses, this restless farewell takes on a meta feel; “well, I’m thinking I’m knowing that I gotta be going, you know I hate to say so long, it gives me an ocean of mixed-up emotion, I’ll have to work it out in a song.”
The best numbers here are all originals. The propulsive title-track blends spitfire guitar licks, flickering pedal steel, buoyant bass and a snappy backbeat. Much like John Hiatt’s epochal “Memphis In The Meantime,” these two are ditching their dullsville digs, looking for some action; “This old town is a disaster, let’s go find greener pastures, you and me, we’ll ride in style, my old Chevrolet mile after mile, well, I’ll navigate and we’ll go faster, let’s go after greener pastures.”
“She’s Gone” is a blistering rave-up that splits the difference between Rockabilly and Western Swing. The arrangement is anchored by chugging, upright bass, barrelhouse piano, stinging guitars and a driving, locomotive rhythm. Flirty piano colors bookend every verse, bewilderment sets in as the incomprehensible happens; “She’s gone, I can’t believe she’s gone, hear that midnight train roll on, that’s the one she’s on, she’s gone!”
Finally, there’s “Time To Ramble,” locks into a mid-tempo groove as prickly pedal steel, ticklish piano, shang-a-lang guitars and tensile bass are wed to a ramshackle beat. The buoyant melody and arrangement nearly camouflage lyrics that dispense with diplomacy; “Well, your loud mouth and drinkin’ has got me to thinkin’ maybe I’m better off alone…time to roam, time to ramble, I’ve had all I can handle, of your fussin’ and your fightin’ and your cheatin’ and your lyin,’ time to roam, time to ramble.”
Other interesting include “Hill Country Waltz” and the album’s closer, “Tavern Time.” Both were written by The Waymores’ compadre, Johnny MacGowen (he co-wrote the title-track). “Hill Country…” is a courtly charmer that tracks heartache and betrayal in ¾ time. “Tavern Time” is a souped-up two-step that shares some musical DNA with the Ray Charles’ arrangement of Buck Owens lachrymose classic, “Crying Time.”
As with The Waymores’ last album, lean and unfussy production was provided by the legendary Shel Talmy. Willie and Kira corralled a wolfpack of renowned pickers and players to bring their songs to life. Tony Braunagel anchored the backbeat, bass duties were divided between Terry Wilson and James “Hutch” Hutchinson. Dave Pearlman played pedal steel, Johnny Lee Schell provided lead guitar and, fittingly, multi-instrumentalist Phil Parlapiano added keys. (Blah-Blah) supplied supple harmonies. Greener Pastures echoes bygone eras, but The Waymores’ sound is firmly rooted in the now. The record finds them distilling their influences and paying homage to heroes, but they also manage to expand their musical horizons.