In a world where country music has turned into AutoTuned songs about bros and bikinis, anyone who keeps things classic stands out like the most bedazzled of Nudie suits. While Hank Williams, George Jones and Jim Reeves are surely rolling in their graves anytime someone turns on a “country” radio station, there is still hope for those who crave a traditional approach. If you’re of the opinion that country-crossover has crossed too far over, Wes Youssi and his Country Champs are with you.
Fifteen seconds of songs like “I Ain’t A Quitter” or “Down Low”—a song about going to bar, putting a honky-tonk number on the juke and getting good and lost in your whiskey—are enough to wipe the words “Florida Georgia Line” from your consciousness. Working with a sonic palette of blue sky lap steel, hearth-warm bass, and Youssi’s dulcet twang Down Low brings you right back to the heart of the genre—the same sound that Youssi first heard through his grandmother’s records growing up amongst Illinois corn farms.
Somewhat surprisingly, Youssi manages to utilize these familiar sounds with nuance. “Cadillac Man,” with its pompadour-cool guitar riff, takes things into rockabilly territory. The yodel at the back of Youssi’s throat making itself known as he sings “Living too fast/The American dream.” “High Time” presents itself as Guthrie meets Hank Williams, a honky-tonk song about inequality and “workin’ for the man,” and “Into A Bottle” puts keyboards at the center of the mix, lending a ‘60s Glen Campbell groove to a classic drinking cut.
While Down Low is thoroughly referential, Youssi isn’t totally bogged down by the past, lacing the album’s truly vintage sound with just a wink of lyrical modernity. Twangy songs about trains, Cadillacs and hitting the bottle are sandwiched around “Green Dream,” an ode to Mary Jane that has Youssi donning some pigtail braids and doing his best Willie Nelson. “In these hard times/The treasure’s under your feet,” he sings—a country-fried fiddle happily echoing Youssi’s insistence that “that nine-leaf clover” is the most pragmatic solution to everyone’s problems. “Some Of What We Used To Do” mixes down-home grammar with the concept of finding the time to be romantic in the midst of today’s fast-paced rat race. “Let’s get out in the country/Where it ain’t all about that money,” he sings, longing for simpler times and slower surroundings.
It’s a longing that will resonate with many—the same sentiment that should endear Youssi to those who like to keep their country music kosher. And while it’s largely unoriginal, can border on saccharine and is something you can already hear at any time by dropping the needle on a classic LP from the ‘60s and ‘70s, Down Low is an impressive and charming debut that goes down like a glass of ice-cold sweet tea.