To say that it isn’t easy to make an original country album that resonates with generations young and old in 2020 would be too great an understatement for any self-respecting music critic to make, but in the case of Carlos Washington’s Steel Horse Swing and their new album Little Bit of Texas, the process looks and sounds all too simple. It’s debatable whether or not we’ve ever seen an era quite as competitive in the Nashville scene as today’s is, but that doesn’t stop songs like “It Was Love at First Swing,” “I Am a Cowboy Y’all,” “I Can Still Make Cheyenne,” “House of Blue Lights” and the title track in Little Bit of Texas from making the kind of impression that only one of a kind country music can. Washington knows that, in this genre (probably more than any other in popular music), it’s often better to stick with the basic fundamentals than it is to get too experimental, and this is a big reason why his new album is possible this month’s biggest show-stopper.
“Sugar Moon” and “My Little Red Wagon” are two of the most personal sounding songs on Little Bit of Texas, but they’re far from the only tracks in which Carlos Washington sounds like he has a deeper investment in the narrative than cosmetic tonalities or bare country linguistics could ever account for. He’s very careful to avoid the pitfalls that come with stylistic overindulgence in songs like “The King of Western Swing” and “Miss Molly,” sometime employing a flatter than average equalization on his own vocal parts to achieve clean efficiency. This wasn’t totally called for on his part, but I can also understand why he would go to such lengths to keep the fat off of the chicken-pickin’ this LP has to offer listeners. In order to maintain crossover appeal with country/folk fans and other audiences inclined towards Americana, the levels had to be conservatively matched in Little Bit of Texas, allowing for us to feel like we’re getting a lot of twang but never so much that the natural texture in Washington’s voice gets lost in the mix.
There’s still plenty of room for Carlos Washington’s Steel Horse Swing to grow into their sound more than they already have in Little Bit of Texas, but if there is anything we can learn about the future of this band, the singer/songwriter behind its creation and the music they’re going to be making together in the 2020s, it’s that they’re not about to crumble to commercial interests just to affect the country music community. Washington and company have established a cut and dry blueprint for making incredible swing tunes in this record, and I don’t think they care very much whether or not the establishment gives them the corporate stamp of approval; there’s too much love for the country classics in this music for them to shift gears away from their western style, and as long as they stay loyal to these aesthetics, they’re going to do just fine in this business.