While Texas music legend Jerry Jeff Walker has written many great songs, generally his bread and butter is recording the works of other great writers and delivering worthy and at times definitive versions of them. He’s not a great vocalist in the technical sense by any means, but his voice has a folksy, “everyman” quality that’s very charming and difficult to dislike, and he is an extremely able interpreter. While he’s never achieved much in the way of commercial success and is virtually unknown in the mainstream, he has a huge cult following among country enthusiasts and remains extremely influential in Texas and alt-country to this day. His 1978 album Contrary to Ordinary came at the end of a long run of classic albums, and while it’s hardly the best record in his discography, it’s certainly worth checking out.
The opener “Tryin’ to Hold the Wind Up With a Sail” is a sweet love song about a couple who rely on each other for emotional support during the hard times. The production is Carribbean-flavored and a huge departure from Walker’s normal country-folk sound, but it really works. Of similarly high quality is Lee Clayton’s roots rocker “Saturday Night Special” (not to be confused with the Conway Twitty or Lyrnyrd Skyrnrd songs of the same name), which is a rollicking good time with a great chorus.
The true highlight here, however, is a superb cover of Rodney Crowell’s “Till I Gain Control Again”. Many elite artists including Willie, Waylon, and Emmylou have delivered fine readings of this song, but Walker’s version is likely the definitive. The narrator is a man who’s struggling mightily with personal demons but reaffirms his commitment to his true love no matter what. Walker’s performance of a man at his most vulnerable is pitch perfect and he gets the right amount of emotion out of every note.
The rest of the album is highly listenable but less celebratory than the aforementioned tracks. Butch Hancock’s “Suckin’ a Big Bottle of Gin” is a a bit of a Southern boogie-woogie with some frankly surreal lyrics. Joe Ely also recorded this on his debut album, and while I wouldn’t go as far as to say I dislike this song, I’ve never been quite sure what to make of it. The barroom ballad “What Are We Doin’ With Our Lives” and the blues number “I Spent All My Money Lovin’ You” are solid if unspectacular, and “Deeper Than Love” is a bit lightweight lyrically but makes for a fun listen.
Contrary to Ordinary isn’t quite a great album; it’s not as cohesive as Walker’s best records and is a bit uneven in spots. Furthermore, the more adventurous production elements (horns, electronic keyboards) will not be to everybody’s cup of tea, especially to those accustomed to Walker’s typical raw, rootsy sound. However, the highs are more than enough to cancel out the relatively few lows, making for an above-average record that’s easy to recommend.