Album Review

The Bean Pickers Union – Greatest Picks: Album Review

Timeless, feelgood music from The Bean Pickers Union that embraces, with rapture, as many styles of American country infused rock as you can shake a leg at. And probably will.

Release Date: 17th September 2021

Label: Self-released

Format: CD / digital.

Cast your mind back to the, gulp, the 1970s, and you may recall a US southern rock band called The Outlaws, never quite as much in the spotlight as they deserved, arguably knocked off any pole position by the greater radio-friendliness of the Eagles.

It is they that this gorgeous selection of songs most reminds me most of. With maybe the more organic flavours of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils seeping in, to dilute the usually otherwise electric thrust of that band. But, just because that was half a century ago, don’t, whatever you do, fall into the trap of thinking that means it is dated or old hat. It isn’t, it really isn’t, it is as fresh as a prairie daisy. Music sung and played as well as this never goes out of fashion, all the less, in fact, if it was never strictly in. But BPU actually have a trump card over either the Outlaws or the Ozarks , with a wider palette of instruments and styles at their command than had either of they, offering a wide selection of sounds, from country acoustica to telecaster chugs, with all stations between visited and several more besides.

To be fair, there is no actual Bean Pickers Union, it being more the term of reference for Chuck Melchin and a rotating cast of players, Chuck being the writer, the singer and all round cool dude. Over the past decade he has, under this name, produced a slew of recordings, this being his own selection of the cream thereof, together with four newly recorded tracks. A busy fella, he has also performed solo and, in cahoots with Michael Spaly of Green Monroe, as Los Brujos. His voice is that that sort of effortless tenor that only very few can attest to having, none of your knotted brow and bulging veins, a fluid timbre that slips down a treat. Almost conversational in style, until you start trying to sing along.

Opener, 16 Pounds Of Mary, which probably doesn’t refer to a newborn daughter, is a classic road song, a long way round trip down the backroads, with an illicit cargo on board, Melchin’s voice a honeyed balm over his own picked guitar roll, with the unexpected of a swooping pair of electric guitars soloing in a joyful interlude toward the end. These come from an Andy Santospago, who crops up a number of times, on all manner of guitars; resonator, steel and good ol’ ornery. Brushed drums then give an old-timey feel to Burning Sky, uke and mandolin amongst the array of backing, the mood next shifting across the board to an acoustic blues, Reaper, which has a Workingman’s Dead vibe and is enlivened by some mood enhancing slide.

Just when you didn’t expect it, a string quartet, well nearly, pop up on the next song, Strange, an engaging otherwise piano led lament, with choral vocal backing to Melchin’s keening tones. A beautiful song, gloriously performed, which clears the decks before a straightforward country-rocker, I’m So Sorry, Bob Metzger here providing the bendiest, bounciest guitar this side of Nashville West. Photograph then provides a rootsy shimmer, a classic story song, a mournful ode that lingers way longer than its relative brevity would lead you to expect.

Is it really six songs in before any banjo? Irrespective of whether that may offer reassurance to some listeners, Tranquility is a pleasantly simple paean to the joy of procrastination. And the banjo is perfect. Philemon is then perhaps one of the most affecting songs in this collection, that man Santospago providing some searing glissandos of steel, over exactly the sort of backing a song that references coyotes should sound, with the haunting hum of a background organ overseeing lyrics about loss and destitution. Independence Day has similar instrumentation but is far more upbeat, the organ swirling all over melody. In fact, it is an entirely different iteration of the BPU, just Melchin and Eric Lichter, who has popped up on a number of earlier tracks, and seems somewhat versatile, tackling keyboards, bass and drums, as here.

By now this collection is really stealing me, I finding it hard to understand or accept that this, and all his earlier recordings, are all self-made and self-released, without the slightest touch or taint of a label, big or small. If this is by choice, fair play, but if it through lack of interest, how, I wonder. And why?

Anyhoo, moving on, Down provides another moment of maudlin might, with yet another switch of timbre, fiddle and mandolin the added textures. ‘Warrior’ is a bit more meat and potatoes, a 4:4 rocker and one of the songs that most brings to mind the Outlaws; I can imagine it a great live show closer, John Brookhouse here doing the heavy lifting on guitar. Down a gear or three, with the prairie porch strum along of Sometimes I Just Sits, and I find myself wondering if there is a mood Melchin cannot mine. It seems not.

The penultimate of the older tracks, Glory is another full band electric rocker, organ and twin guitars very much a recurring theme across the repertoire, with Broken picking back the fiddle and banjo style he is as adept at writing for, and is a down-home song for sunsets and sipping whiskey.

This would have been already enough for my enthusiastic championing of this buckaroo of all brands of Americana, but he has added a further four songs yet, continuing to mix and match the musicians and the musical styles embraced. So, with Bulletproof Man we get another roustabout of guitars and rowdy Jerry Lee bar room piano. We get the consummate 70s Laurel Canyon canter of I Am James, which evokes the ambience of a Jackson Browne co-write with the Eagles, long before either became huge. ‘Amy Jean’ maintains this energy, strummed mandolin high in the mix, always a good sign in my book. I have spotted Andy Santospager is again enlisted on guitar duties for this one, failing, as ever, to disappoint his new fan. Closer, She, sort of hints it might be that one, but it isn’t, and is back to full on hat country, pedal steel, piano and fiddle dancing around the wistful vocal. The set has to stop somewhere, and this is as good a place as any, bringing the lights down effectively and efficiently.

By now, it is quite possible you have realised I am rather impressed by this record. I had never heard of either Chuck Melchin, or of any of his excellent BPU sidekicks. Indeed, I hadn’t meant to wax so long and so lyrical, but it was impossible not to, there being no shortcut allowable, such is the array of his palette demonstrated. I fully appreciate I started by drawing comparisons, and continued throughout, to artists better known and who ought to have been better known. The point is really that he and The Bean Pickers Union deserves to be at least as well known as any of them. I hope this collection achieves at least some of that. Look it out.

The Bean Pickers Union online: Facebook / Bandcamp

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