When rock drummer and studio engineer Sean Shannon got together with country-rooted vocalist and guitarist Billy Varnes, they didn’t just musically gel and create a strong songwriting partnership. Nor did they just go on to form the guitar-driven four piece Outbound Road and produce a ridiculously solid debut album.
They also mixed together the best of classic rock, southern rock and country to produce a fresh perspective on those musical genres – and created a brand new sound, which they call “Hard Country.”
Sean Shannon, originally from upstate New York, has recorded and toured with such rock legends as Molly Hatchet and the Pat Travers Band, to name but two.
Soft spoken but big voiced Billy Varnes was raised on country music and is a true southern gentleman with an inherent sense of harmony. Billy hails from a roots country background but his influences range from traditional country to southern rock to rhythm and blues… from Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash to the Allman Brothers and Stevie Ray Vaughn.
And Billy isn’t just a great singer; he’s a great guitar player. If Sean is the rock and roll heart of Outbound Road, Billy is the country-tinged soul of the band, with a full voice that is genuine and honest. Much like the man himself.
Billy’s guitar partner on Hard Country is Angelo Jannotti, who provided some tasty harmony and lead work to complement Billy’s own guitar grooves. Angelo also played some mandolin on the album and contributed to the writing sessions.
On stage, the guitar talents of Mario Ticlea and bass guitarist Jamie Baker complete the band.
"Hard Country" was produced by Malcolm Springer (Matchbox 20, Collective Soul) and Sean. Malcolm locked down the basic arrangement tracks while Sean did the rest of the production including mixing and final mastering.
Of course great production values count for nothing if you don’t have the songs, but any fears about song quality are soon dispelled when you play the album.
"Hard Country" is eleven great slices of the band’s musical mix ‘n’ mash-up of country, heavy rock and southern rock. It’s a little bit country, it’s more than a little bit rock and roll. And it’s a helluva debut.
Highlights include the raucous and roll closing number ‘Put the Pedal Down,’ (featuring Pat Travers on slide guitar), the powerful hard-edged title track, the rock ballads ‘I’m Your Man (No Matter When)’ and ‘Home to Me’ which unashamedly hang their cowboy hats on the hooks and harmonies of American Country, and the anthemic ‘Home of the Brave.’
The latter features a powerful and heartfelt Billy Varnes vocal and his plea to “bring back the America we once knew” has already got audiences singing along in full voice to Outbound Road’s take on the American Dream – and where the hell it went.
But the real strength to "Hard Country" is twofold. There are absolutely no filler songs on the album and, for a band that is so distinctly American in sound and lyrical themes, it’s a testament to the quality of those songs that the album has such a global appeal.
"Hard Country" is chock-full of tracks that deserve to be played by mainstream, rock and country radio stations and heard by rock fans on both sides of the pond.
In concert Outbound Road produce what they have created on the album – a high-energy, vibrant and fresh take on guitar-driven countrified rock and roll. Whether it's performing a melodic country-rock ballad or cranking the amps up to 11, this band can deliver. And visually the band define the term Hard Country as much as their music does – long-haired rock and rollers and country rockin’ cowboy hats.
Make no mistake…
The band is on an Outbound Road.
And heading your way.
Freelance Music Writer & Music Critic