It’s like “Cowboy” Jack Clement always used to say, “when all else fails, get lucky”. Ever since Ralph Peer set up his portable recording equipment on the third floor of the Taylor-Christian Hat and Glove Company, the story of country music has been written by singers and songwriters with the right song, in the right place, at the right time. These people really did get lucky, when all else actually failed. Just imagine if Kris Kristofferson hadn’t misheard the name of the Monument studio secretary, Barbara "Bobbie" McKee, or if the singer that Lynn Shults of Capitol Records had gone to the Bluebird to see had turned up and she hadn’t seen Garth Brooks instead. It’s about luck. Sometimes that’s all it is.
Every penny has its flip side though, and for every lucky break that leads to success, there’s a missed turning on the road there for someone else; a secret history of country music, written instead by the singers and songwriters for whom things didn’t quite go to plan. The ones that always almost made it, but in the end just never quite did. The could’ve-beens, should’ve-beens and would’ve-beens of the country music multiverse. Singers who had all the right songs, but just never happened to be in that right place at that right time.
The story of Rodger Wilhoit is one such story. Originally released in 1974, most of the copies of The Social World Of Rodger Wilhoit – along with the few singles that preceded it - were probably sold directly off the bandstand at the time. They would have been among the thousands of records by local artists on local labels that sold well enough at shows, but years later ended up in garage sales or thrift stores, never quite having done enough to cross over to a larger audience. There they’re likely to remain, languishing in the Country Music Hall of Obscurity – unless, by chance, they get their lucky break years later; unearthed and finally appreciated by an entirely new audience, like lost episodes of Dr Who, or Snuffy’s Parents Get A Divorce, the unaired episode of Sesame Street that attempted to teach its pre-school audience about parental separation.
48 years after its release, the album has been lovingly repressed by the Sweet Mental Revenge label; remastered with a slew of bonus tracks, rare photos, memorabilia and liner notes to give The Social World Of Roger Wilhoit a new life beyond the bandstands. The exact details of the recording have been lost to the murky mists of time, but it was definitely recorded in Nashville, either at RCA, Mercury or Bradleys, as well as possibly a studio in a concrete bunker under a runway in Cleveland. Charlie McCoy, The Nashville Edition and Jonny Gimble are all on the record, and perhaps the steel guitarist Lloyd Green as well. The cover is a sepia illustration of Wilhoit with Nashville’s Printers Alley – the city’s only nightclub zone in the mid-seventies - behind him. You know exactly what you’re looking at; you’re looking at country. At its most honky-tonkin’ and hardened; straight-up no frills country with its sparse and sparing instrumentation. It’s Countrypolitan, before the rough edges have all been polished smooth. Like Johnny Paycheck or Porter Wagoner, there’s something in Wilhoit’s voice – born in Greeneville, Tennessee, in the foothills of the Appalachians - that’s too country to ever truly be cosmopolitan.
Wilhoit is the down-on-his-luck anti-hero of these loveable loser anthems, finding a gloomy comfort in his seemingly unending misfortunes. Self-deprecating and cheerily delusional, he’s always stuck at the bottom looking up - like in the title-track and ‘When I Climb Back Up To The Living’ - he’s even almost encouraging when another man is romantically interested in his wife in ‘My Shoes Are Not That Hard To Fill’. It’s not just his willingness to assume the role of the downtrodden outsider, but the pride he takes in that role, that makes these songs so powerful. Elsewhere, on ‘Since 1959’, he opens his heart up to an old flame that’s still burnt for him through all the intervening years, only to find she’s been married to another man this whole time.
All but one of the songs on the The Social World Of Rodger Wilhoit are written by Carl French, the owner of Parklane records - the label that originally released the album - and a tireless believer in Rodger Wilhoit. Throughout his career, Carl French was always there, pushing Wilhoit on, hoping for bigger things for him; he got him a booker in Nashville, and Wilhoit played some shows with George Jones, leading him to be booked up to play most nights of the week, taking him up into Canada and down to Texas. All the time, Wilhoit held on to his job in an auto-body shop in Cleveland. “I could leave when I wanted, come back when I wanted. For some time. I was playing someplace every night of the week”, he tells Colin Escott in the extensive liner notes to this reissue. “I’ll say this for Carl, he did the best he could. We just didn’t have a whole lot of luck.”
There is a tendency to look back on albums like The Social World Of Rodger Wilhoit and imagine that country was in some way less contrived back then; as if it was more “authentic” or “real”. As if somehow, what Wilhoit and George Jones and Johnny Paycheck were doing in the mid-seventies, was more genuine than mainstream country is today. But if you actual tunnel down beyond the differences in production, Rodger Wilhoit isn’t that far removed from Sam Hunt or Jimmie Allen. They’re singing about the same downtown bars, with the same drinks and distractions and the same failed relationships as each other. Country music is still really all about what it always has been.
Roger Wilhoit passed away in July last year, just eight months before the release of this beautiful reissue. It’s a long overdue reappraisal of a lost country classic, something that might just give him and Carl French the fame that eluded them both during their lifetimes. “I’ll be back to try again / when sad songs have all been sung / and my effort will bear the fruit / for many years to come”, he may sing hopefully at one point on the album, but you get the feeling Wilhoit wouldn’t have known what to do if things ever had gone his way. He never did get lucky when all else failed, but maybe all these years later he might just get a posthumous roll of the dice.
The re-issue of 1974's The Social World of Rodger Wilhoit is out this Friday (2/26) via Sweet Mental Revenge Records.