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When it comes to musical identity, storied destinations such as Chicago, New Orleans, New York and Memphis never had to worry much about image.
In the Sunshine State, however, the theme parks and teen-pop fads tend to obscure a reservoir of rich traditions and talent that rivals the Big Easy and the Windy City - if you just know where to look.
Swampland, the new studio album from Central Florida roots-rock outfit Buster Cousins, is a fine place to start. Powered by the songs, singing and instrumental work of guitar hero Tim Kelliher, these 10 songs are a highly elevated cross between rock, country, folk and blues.
Yeah, plenty of so-called alt-country acts are plowing this same turf nowadays, but few do it with such innate style, skill and sense of place. The Florida influence is as sweetly obvious as the scent of orange blossoms from a grove, from the Highwaymen painting on the cover to the nostalgic images on the CD and the inspired opening romp through John Anderson's "Seminole Wind."
A fixture for more than three decades on bandstands in Florida and beyond, Kelliher operates Buster Cousins as a flexible collective.
More than a dozen singers and musicians contribute to Swampland, including guitarist Mark Emerick (of the Commander Cody Band); veteran drummer Juan Perez (ex-Bellamy Brothers sideman); bassist Barry Dean (an alumnus of Brian Auger's Oblivion Express); and Beth McKee, the New Orleans-bred singer currently putting Florida on the Americana map with her own Sugarcane Revival album.
The expansive studio band was produced by Woodstock Records founder Aaron "Professor Louie" Hurwitz, known for his Grammy-nominated work with The Crowmatix and The Band's Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm. On Swampland, the Professor builds on Kelliher's muscular guitar foundation to brush against rockabilly (Ronnie "Byrd" Foster's "Rattlesnake Rattle"), gut-bucket blues ("Crosses by the Road") and well-placed ballads such as the wistful Louisiana vignettes of "Bayou Lacombe."
Geographically, Swampland crosses the state line with positive results for "Virginia Moon," a love song steeped in history, and the breezy, almost pop-oriented "Mississippi Blue."
Not surprisingly, the album's DNA is most apparent in the title track, a percolating celebration of life in the swampland, where muddy waters - not the singer - are friends and swamp sistas tempt with "stars in their eyes." A worried nod to strip-mall development mixes substance into the groove.
There's another message in the blue-collar anthem "Hicks from the Sticks," a propulsive rocker that closes the album with an exhortation for hard-working folks to "take back the country; take back the nation." At one point, Kelliher wonders: "Don't they know who we really are?"
If not, Swampland is a perfect introduction.
- Jim Abbott
(Freelance writer Jim Abbott was the longtime music critic at the Orlando Sentinel, where he covered music and entertainment beats for more than two decades.)