Billy Stoner’s unlucky number has to be 37. That’s because it’s taken this record 37 years to see the light of day, and during that time Stoner also spent 37 months in prison – the latter a pivotal time that sabotaged what was shaping up to be a promising musical career. In at the ground level of the outlaw country scene in the 1970s – which was turbo-charged by the arrival of Willie Nelson in Austin – Stoner fell in with the wrong crowd at the end of that decade when he was caught in a DEA sting and this resulted in him being institutionalised until 1984 – even if it sounds like the prison warden was sympathetic to him forming a band of fellow pickers in prison called the Austin Fall Stars.
Having had the masters in storage since 1990, Stoner was eventually convinced by one of the backing singers on his album, Jemima James, to release the record, and he was assisted with its release by the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University who cleaned up the recordings, and by Team Love records who released the album.
So what does his eponymous debut sound like? Stoner has the requisite grizzled and gruff cigarettes-and-whiskey soaked vocals befitting an outlaw country artist, and his voice has been compared to a cross between John Prine and Waylon Jennings, which is a fair assessment.
Many of the songs are autobiographical in nature: ‘Lookout Mountain’ about his hometown where his in-laws made whiskey (which his father tried to drink dry), and where Stoner currently resides, and ‘River Gang’ about an, ahem, ‘import’ company. Stoner may glory in the self-mythologising, bad ass troubadour image, but he also has first-hand experience of the price to be paid: “if you can’t do your time / Then you don’t commit your crime.”
Similarly, ‘Benny’s Tune’ tells the story of a would-be country star – which could well be Stoner himself – who sets out for Nashville only to be thwarted in his pursuit of fame by his own demons.
There are two stand out songs on the album. ‘Lordy Lordy’ starts out with a chord progression that wouldn’t be out of place on song by the Band, before launching into a country-rock classic about Stoner’s plea to the all mighty to escape capture by the Sheriff’s department.
Stoner saves the very best to the last of these nine songs, with ‘If You Want the Candy.’ The spoken word introduction is a long drawn out dedication to the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Johnny, Ramblin’ Jack, Woody, Jerry Jeff, and Donny & Marie. It’s another story song, this time about procuring cocaine, which sadly turns out to be adulterated with quinine.
Whilst the album’s not a complete lost classic – some of the individual songs lack sufficient character for that – it’s still more than worthy of discovery, and we should be grateful to Jemima James and Team Love for rescuing the masters from obscurity.