Published May 12, 2015It's easy to lose faith in country music these days. Overprocessed and underwhelming, a lot of it's downright awful. Once in a while, though, a band comes along that reminds me why I like the stuff so much, and Big Tobacco and the Pickers is a prime example. A hard-working six-piece band that has graced the Toronto scene and played venues across Ontario for many years, Big Tobacco is best appreciated live, in their regular haunts like the Cameron House, where adoring crowds sing along to their anthemic ode to the great Willie Nelson, "In Willie We Trust." If you can't get there, however, a taste of that magic can be found on The King is Gone, the band's second album.
Big Tobacco's influences are no secret; their album is dedicated to the late George Jones, and along with Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, they've clearly listened to their share of Johnny Paycheck and Waylon Jennings. But in a world of new bands trying to sound old, Big Tobacco draws on this tradition without being a carbon copy of their heroes.
Musically, there is some great playing here. Anne Werbitsky delivers tasty licks on dobro and pedal steel, and Blaine McKenzie's deliciously playful honky-tonk piano provides a great counterpoint to J. R. Blanchard's hard biting electric guitar. But what really makes this band stand out is Jamie Oliver's lead vocals. His swoon-worthy baritone is delivered without pretence or twang. Oliver's voice is one part velvet curtains, and one part blue-collar Sudbury grit — the perfect country combo.
These original songs are a great cross-section of country themes: "I Knew You Were Mine" (with Angie Hilts joining Oliver on vocals), a perfect slow-dance love song; "Last Look Back," a regretful, take-me-back tune; "Freightliner Full of Sins," a gospel number, complete with a choir of honky-tonk angels (Samantha Martin, Stacie Tabb, and Sherie Marshall); "Red River Rebellion," an homage to Canada's Metis; and "The King is Gone," as good a drunkard's ramble as you could ask for.
The best song on the record, though, is "In Willie We Trust." If country radio knows what's good for it, this instant classic will end up in heavy rotation. (Independent)