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The Amazing Rhythm Aces

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Some twenty-five years ago, six fresh-faced musicians gathered in a Memphis recording studio. The music they made didn't fit neatly into any specific category; it was country-style storytelling with a soulful groove, world-wise poetry with a down-home delivery. To the band we would come to know as The Amazing Rhythm Aces, it was simply American music - a mixed bag of the influences that had drawn them together. Fans didn't seem to care about labels, either. For more than two decades, songs like "Third Rate Romance", "Amazing Grace (Used To Be Her Favorite Song)" and the Grammy-winning "The End Is Not In Sight" would remain etched in the hearts and minds of a genre-spanning generation as benchmarks of popular music's better days. The group disbanded in 1981, but its songs lived on as radio staples and its albums were coveted by collectors. In 1995 the original Aces teamed up to record a collection of their best-known material. Titled Ride Again and released on their own Breaker Records label, it was their first-ever CD. Reaction was positive; too positive, in fact, to be merely the result of older fans queing up to replace well-worn vinyl. The music was connecting with young listeners, too. The band played a few club dates, then booked a tour of Australia, where they'd always enjoyed a large following. Interest was booming Stateside as well, and the Aces returned to play venues throughout the US. In late '96 they recorded Out Of The Blue, an album of new material also released on Breaker. By 1997, the re-formation was official; the Aces were back as a full-time band with original members Jeff "Stick" Davis (bass), James Hooker & Billy Earheart (keys), drummer Butch McDade and vocalist & primary songwriter Russell Smith. Their new CD, Chock Full Of Country Goodness, features more of Smith's uniquely rich songwriting and the kind of soul-stirring playing that have kept fans loyal for more than two decades.

"What's happened for us is really gratifying," Smith says of the group's rebirth and subsequent popularity. "When you consider the competition that's out there today, all the music available to people, it's truly humbling to think that so many people want to hear what we do. We didn't have to run around trying to find something that 'worked,' either. We've always had an identity, sound-wise, and we've stuck to it. New songs keep it fresh, and we've focused on recording in a way that sounds as real as possible-as close to live as you can make it, with everyone playing together and very few overdubs and soforth - but basically we're just the same bunch of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants outfit we've always been. That's how we play our shows, too-get things set as well as you possibly can, and then just go for it. I think that kind of energy is a big part of our appeal."

If the method to the Aces magic is largely unchanged since their early days, one factor has made them even better, both live and on record. During their fifteen-year hiatus, each member forged his own stellar career. Smith became one of Nashville's most respected songwriters, penning hits for Randy Travis (Look Heart, No Hands), Ricky Van Shelton (Keep It Between The Lines) and many others. Sammy Kershaw's cut on Russell's "Third Rate Romance" made the Aces classic a smash hit for a second time. Pianist James Hooker logged sideman stints with Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Nanci Griffith and played dozens of Music Row master sessions. Organist Billy Earheart followed concert and studio dates for Memphis Slim, Waylon Jennings, Wet Willie and Al Green with a long tenure in Hank Williams, Jr.'s band. Stick, who also toured with Green, built his own long list of credits that includes B.B. King, Bob Dylan, Ron Wood and Tommy Tutone.

"It's funny how one thing builds on another," allows Smith. "We were lucky when we started out, and that success opened a lot of doors for each of us when we went out on our own. Still, we had to figure things out for ourselves, learn what we had as individuals and what we could make out of that. Then when we got back together, everybody brought back a different perspective that made the combination even stronger."

There is, however, one significant part missing from today's Aces - a part that will never be replaced. In late 1998, drummer Butch McDade succumbed after a lengthy battle with cancer. "The loss we all feel," says Smith, "is just devastating. Butch was an absolute brother to me. We'd been together since the beginning. Every show we do, every time we go into the studio, he's right there, still a part of it. Not just in spirit, but in a real, tangible way that's hard to explain. It's like he took a part of each one of us with him, but he left a little of himself behind. We all miss him like you wouldn't believe, and I'm sure we always will."

In sessions for Chock Full Of Country Goodness, McDade's role was filled by Nashville studio ace Milton Sledge. Steel guitarist Jim Vest sweetens several tracks, as do special guests/background vocalists Gary Burr, Jim Photoglo and Beth Hooker. Guitar duties are handled by new Ace Tony Bowles, whose previous gigs include a long tenure in Hank Williams Jr.'s band. Together with the charter members, this extended cast makes for what's very likely the best Aces record to date. After all, the band does have its "secret weapon," as Stick Davis calls it: "We have what everyone else would kill to have-a whole record full of Russell Smith tunes."

The new batch of songs, according to Russell, is drawn from an energy that reminds him of his early tunesmithing days. "Writing has really been meaning a lot to me again. Kind of an innocent thing, like when I first started out. I think the album sounds like one of our original records - a pretty wide variety of stuff, but still cohesive. As far as a theme, it's all fairly country-flavored, at least to me. I've never been very good at describing our sound, or even my own writing. Whatever you call that spot a little south and east of country & western, I guess that's me. It's just the music I hear in my head, and I never really felt a need to name it.

"Chock Full..." is Smith at his creative best, partnered with a handful of Music City's other top writers. Yippee Yi Yo Yo (Smith, Gary Cotton) opens the set with a rural-route lope. "We poked a little fun at the average country fan," Russell admits, "which I'm proud to say includes me. Just your basic, hard-workin', hard-partyin', hard-chargin' kind of guy. Like most of us, he's no movie star. Lots of people have really simple wants and needs - you know, gimmie a six-pack and a night off. Those people need love, too. This song's for them."

Longtime listeners will recognize Russell's way with a heartbreaking ballad in The Rock (co-written with Jim Varsos). ...You think you hear the sound of distant thunder... that's just your ol' rock, rollin' away... "It's about not making the same mistake over and over again," Smith explains. "You try to be steadfast and faithful as long as you can, and then finally you face facts and move on. Now, the other side of that coin is what you have with Makin' Nothin' Out Of Somethin', which was written with Cindy Green. These people have found out that being in love and living together isn't Disneyland or Camelot, but they still believe in it, and they're trying to make adjustments. Relationships can go so many places, which is great for writers. We'll never run out of situations to write about. Unfortunately, a lot of the best ones come from your own life, like I Need A Heart To Come Home To. It came out of the time when I was newly-divorced. I came home one night with this great song, and I wanted to play it for somebody, but nobody was there."

No Aces album would be complete without some lighter fare, and Rednecks Unplugged & D.U.I.S.O.L. fit the bill. They're Russell's "it's okay to feed the rednecks" and "anti-drinkin', drinkin'" songs, respectively. Jerry Fontaine And His Jammin' Guitar is a bit of a dichotomy, as Smith explains: "It's funny, but it's kind of sad, too. One of my co-writers walked in one day with this old, beat-up, el-cheapo guitar, and on the back the former owner had written his name over and over with a pencil until it was carved into the wood. Then on the tailpiece he'd engraved, "My Jammin' Guitar." We've all seen a thousand of those guys walking down the street in Nashville or LA, just hoping to make it. This is kind of a tribute to them."

With this solid set of new tunes and the classics fans still love, the Aces returned in early 1999 from yet another Australian tour (their fourth) to begin a steady string of US dates. Their lineup is further strengthened by their newest member, drummer Bryan Owings, whom Smith describes as "a perfect fit. Butch recommended him as his replacement, and man, was he on the money with that one."Soon the one remaining drawback to their "do-it-yourself" style of record-making will be addressed. "One thing we hear alot," says Russell, shaking his head, "is that people have a hard time finding our records in stores. We sell a good number of CDs, but it's mostly through our website ( www.theaces.com ) or at the shows. Now, it's flattering that people like our music enough to seek it out, but it looks like they won't have to do that much longer. We're currently negotiating with some heavy-hitting distributors, and our goal is to be all over the place with this new album by the end of the year. So it's true - the end is not in sight!"

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