2012’s Night Train To Memphis is Rocker’s new album following last year’s Cover Sessions EP. In the build-up to the album Rocker claimed that this would be his stamp on his favourite rockabilly classics and cuts from his career with Stray Cats. The tracks that he’s picked to cover certainly span his career from his early Stray Cats days, and before, to his working with Carl Perkins, something he reflected on when playing his brother, Jay Perkins, in Million Dollar Quartet.
The sound on Night Train To Memphis is not far removed from that on The Cover Session EP. Lee’s band play more of a role on this album and the overall sound is tilted more towards the rockabilly end of the spectrum. However, Lee has not lost all of the country flavour that marked out his last album. The country sounds pop up in some unexpected places on the album which I’ll cover in the track-by-track. Generally, the sound on the sound on the album is crisp, clean and very well levelled.
Rockabilly Boogie (Burnette, Burnette, Mortimer & Hawkins) – Rocker leaves no doubt as to his primary instrument as a thoroughly-slapped bass kicks this album off! The lyrics of this track make it one of my less appreciated on the album as I always feel rockabilly songs about rockabilly are a little thin. However, both guitarists and Lee are in fine form on this track so there’s still something for the instrumentalists to enjoy, even if the solos are tantalizingly short.
Night Train To Memphis (Acuff) – The second track on the album starts off with a more gentle acoustic feel with one semi adding almost slide-guitar style riffs. Lee’s voice and tone suit this song perfectly and in many ways it reminds me of some of the gentler stuff on Lee’s strongest album, Black Cat Bone. Look out for the Luther Perkins-style guitar solo.
Slap The Bass (Rocker) – When I first heard the sample for this track I feared that this going to be Lee’s attempt at “Rockabilly Boogie” type song which had little originality in it and generally wouldn’t appeal. I must say that I’m pleasantly surprised by a number where Buzz Campbell’s jazzy playing and Comets-style riffs keeps proceedings interesting and adds a good deal of cool spice.
Twenty Flight Rock (Fairchild) – I must start off on a controversial note here and say I generally don’t like Stray Cats’ covers of Eddie Cochran songs! I know this may sound very odd, with Cochran being a key influence on the band, but, to me, they miss that sense of cool Eddie had in his singing. To me, Cochran always sounded slightly laid back in most of his singing, like there was always another gear he could push on to but never used. The Cats however, tend to go for all out hell-for-leather covers that then lose that sense of cool. That said, this is a fair cover and one of the better efforts a Cat has made a covering an Eddie Cochran classic.
Wild Child (O’Keefe) – This version of “Wild Child” takes its inspiration most strongly from the cut that Jerry Lee Lewis recorded when he was at sun records and was also a track Brian Setzer chose for his covers album, Rockabilly Riot. Unlike Setzer, Rocker chooses to leave the piano at home at home for this track and it becomes a guitar led rockin’ chugger. Considering that two of the Cats have chosen to cover this song, it seems odd that it’s not surfaced on either any Stray Cats live album that I’ve heard, nor on the Stray Cats’ Original Cool.
Honey Don’t (Perkins) – This track is perhaps the closest to the original of any on the album. Having worked with Carl Perkins in the 1980s, I think this track is intended as a direct tribute to Mr Blue Suede Shoes. Overall, a strong performance where Buzz Campbell shines in particular through his delicate finger picking and rhythm playing.
That’s Alright / Blue Moon (Crudup / Monroe) – A medley of these tracks has been a regular staple of Lee’s career and he has released a live version on Burnin’ Love and Blue Suede Nights. This rendering is very much a studio recording of how Lee has played this live without the bass solo as the songs pass from one to the other.
Tear In My Beer (Williams) – My least favored track on the album. This is a strong country-and-western flavored track that would have felt at home in Rocker’s previous release. For me, this is too country and also it strikes me as being some of Williams’ weakest writing when compared to his other compositions, such as “You Win Again” or “Lost Highway”.
Lonesome Tears (Holly) – A relatively hidden gem in Buddy Holly’s catalogue is wonderfully brought to life by Lee Rocker. At this point I must mention the strength of Lee’s guitarists in referencing the styles of various 50s guitarists as various Tommy Allsup licks are spread over this track. Again, this is faithful to the original song and Lee’s vocals are top-notch.
Built For Speed (Setzer) – A interesting, quirky cover of this Stray Cats staple. When the album was originally advertised I expected several straight runs of Stray Cats classics with Lee singing. However, we have one, and straight it isn’t! The primary instrument here is not a chugging Gretsch but a banjo and an acoustic taking back towards Cover Session territory. A definite grower and an interesting twist to a track that any Stray Cats aficionado can hum in their sleep!
So Sad (Smith) – The first of a pair of Everly Brothers classics that see out the album. The two tracks together give a gentle, soulful close to the album and I feel give a timely nod to the Everlys, who are easily forgotten on much of the rockabilly scene.
All I Have To Do Is Dream (Bryant and Bryant) – This is another recent staple of Lee’s gigs. From what I’ve seen, the song is performed live by Lee and Buzz Campbell singing together Everly-style. However, on the record the whole band is in place. In this faithful covering it’s hard to tell if the second voice is Rocker overdubbed or Campbell supporting the, clearly, Rocker vocal lead. My guess is that it’s the former.
Overall I prefer Night Train To Memphis to its predecessor as I prefer the stronger rockabilly stamp that this album holds. Night Train To Memphis is an enjoyable listen where all the musicians shine and the performances are generally strong. However, after two covers releases, I’m now looking forward to hearing more original material from Rocker that can match the superb serving we got on Black Cat Bone.
Lee Rocker – Night Train To Memphis – 7/10