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Monte Warden And The Dangerous Few’s ‘Jackpot!’ Is The Most Compelling Album Of The Year

What if you took every American musical genre you could think of and combined them on one record? The results shouldn’t be this good.

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When I was 12 years old, we lived in the middle of nowhere. We didn’t have cable, the rabbit ears brought in only two television stations, and the mountains around us meant the network station from the nearest sizable town only came in intermittently. Alas, the PBS station was clear as a bell, and somewhere between that station’s dusty documentaries and mind-numbing news reports on textile factory strikes in Bolivia, I had only one respite: the much-beloved music showcase “Austin City Limits.”

It first saw The Wagoneers blow the roof off on “ACL” in 1988, and well, if you know about Monte Warden and The Wagoneers, you know. At that time in the late ’80s, they were being fast-tracked for commercial success. The Wags were signed to Herb Alpert’s influential label A&M while Warden was still a teenager, and to give you an idea of what that meant, only three country acts were ever signed to A&M: Waylon Jennings, Gram Parsons, and The Wagoneers. However, to call The Wagoneers a country act is a bit reductive, as they distinctly harked back to the early days of rock and roll.

On and off the stage, Warden is fanatical about his love of Elvis, and there’s a distinct possibility that he might be the foremost authority on the music and life of his fellow Texan Buddy Holly. The Wags had stumbled onto a sound that was at once fresh and absolutely iconic Americana; I took notice when I was 12 years old and never forgot about The Wagoneers, and I’m very far from being the most notable fan. For instance, when Robbie Robertson of The Band died last year, a tribute to him in Variety casually mentioned that he was a fan of The Wagoneers.

Of course, there’s a reason why, despite the early success, you probably don’t know much if anything about The Wagoneers. It’s a tale as old as the music industry: A&M records was sold not long after their first album, their sophomore record flopped, the band broke up, and heading into the ’90s, Monte Warden’s personal and professional career took more twists and turns than Ted Kennedy driving home from an office party.

Hitting the Jackpot

While I invite you to check out The Wags’ records, that’s not why I’m exhuming this underappreciated bit of music history. It turns out this is just the backstory for maybe the most compelling music story of the year. It turns out Monte Warden has done some living and listening in the last 35 years, and at age 56 he’s back with one of the most interesting and surprising records of this year, or any year, for that matter.

The album is “Jackpot!” by his band Monte Warden and The Dangerous Few, which is a monumental achievement. I’m hard-pressed to think of a record that so effortlessly and pleasurably blends so many different musical styles. Jazz, bossa nova, country swing, gospeI — I swear there’s even a… polka?

It’s quite the musical evolution from The Wagoneers because The Dangerous Few is essentially a jazz band, and an incredibly talented one at that. Brent Wilson, The Wags’ incredibly tasty guitar player, is also in the Few, and it appears he also has a shocking talent for the stand-up bass, which is remarkable considering it’s a far different instrument than his native Stratocaster. Mas Palermo, longtime drummer for the Wags and expert producer, is also on the skins here. Rounding out the usual suspects are horn player Erik Telford and keyboardist Nick Litterski, both of whom bless the album with wonderful hooks and melodies that weave in and out of the vocal line, but somehow neither man manages to overplay.

A word must be said for Warden’s co-songwriter and the album’s co-producer — his wife, Brandi Warden, who aside from being the former manager of Willie Nelson’s studio has a string of her own hit country songwriting credits and is country music royalty. (Her father wrote songs for everyone from Johnny PayCheck to Garth Brooks, and her uncle was an engineer at Sun Records in Memphis, where he helped record classics such as “Great Balls of Fire,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” and “Folsom Prison Blues.”) And naturally, Monte himself is fronting the band, clutching his battered early ’60s Martin guitar, his strumming hand keeping perfect time with the new jazz rhythms.

Of course, the best band in the world can’t do much with bad material, but The Dangerous Few has got the songs. The first single is an effortlessly danceable slice of ’60s lounge jazz recorded in one take, “Waxahachie Hoochie Coo,” which is already charting. (Speaking of ’60s lounge jazz, Hollywood take note — this record is begging to be put on film and TV soundtracks set in previous decades.) Aside from getting listeners to move their feet, the song is notable for its amusing lyrical approach. You’re hooked from the first lines, “There’s a chick down south of Dallas/She go by Waxahachie Alice,” and from there, it spins out into a series of amusing — but tasteful! — innuendos.  

Other standout tracks include “Desperately,” a pretty radical take on the massive George Strait hit that Monte originally penned with his buddy Bruce Robison, and the wild new arrangement only seems to highlight what a perfectly conceived song it was in the first place. “Lovesong Every Day” is reminiscent of “Gentle On My Mind”-era Glen Campbell in the best possible way. “It Was But A Small Affair,” is an absolutely timeless entry into the American standards songbook that features an incredible vocal performance by Warden. The song could have easily spun out; instead, it’s a perfect exercise in artistic restraint and yearning.

The title track has a great Latin beat and horn hook in the verse reminiscent of Warden’s old boss Herb Alpert. It sounds like it came from an alternate universe where Elvis was talked into dipping his toe into the ’60s boss nova fad for his Vegas show. The final track, “Steadfast Love,” is a track that could have easily been recorded by the gospel quartets of the ’50s and the most straight bit of Americana on the record. Notably, the Wardens’ 20-year-old son, Brooks, makes an appearance. A confirmed Tennessee Ernie Ford fanatic, his bass-baritone background vocals practically make the song.

Unique and Fun

Of course, the story here isn’t that Warden has suddenly resuscitated his career with this latest Dangerous Few record. Warden never really went away after The Wags first broke up. His unjustly obscure 1994 solo record was so good that the U.K.’s influential New Musical Express named it one of the 100 best U.S. albums of the 20th century, and The Washington Post named it one of their albums of the year. He paid the bills by writing songs for other top country artists such as Travis Tritt, Patty Loveless, George Jones, and the aforementioned George Strait.

What makes “Jackpot!” a remarkable record is that it’s the product of a musician who is still burning to do something meaningful and original well into his career, long after others would have taken the easy way out. The re-formed Wagoneers still pack legendary Austin honky-tonk The Broken Spoke every month, and his other gig at the incredible Parker Jazz Club downtown with The Dangerous Few has sold out every month for the last few years. Everyone from Herb Alpert to Robbie Robertson has sung his praises, he’s a two-time inductee to the Texas Music Hall of Fame, and he’s a legend in an Austin music scene that has produced more than a few legends. He’s got nothing to prove.

Yet he still cranks out an album this special, albeit with the help of a bunch of other incredibly talented musicians who deserve far more credit than I’m giving them here. It’s a record that manages to be unique and sophisticated, while still feeling familiar and fun, and it demands to be heard, even if getting heard is not easy in an era where the most valuable tool for music promotion is, God help us, TikTok.

“Jackpot!” is on sale and available on streaming Friday.  


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