Ray Lawrence Jr. – Raw & Unplugged (Music Review)
Ray Lawrence Jr. is positioned for the archetypal country success story. Broke, divorced, and living in a homeless shelter when someone gave him an old guitar, he eventually found himself given a seven-minute spotlight on Hank3’s Ghost To A Ghost album. Lawrence’s simple, traditional approach made a great counterpoint to the rest of that aggressive album, but the songs would have stood out anywhere.
If Lawrence’s rise continues, though, it won’t be due to his first full album. Rushed straight to CD Baby to take advantage of the sudden attention, Raw & Unplugged features nothing but Lawrence singing and playing acoustic guitar. These country ballads certainly don’t need fancy production – that big break was with recordings of him in the back of Hank3’s bus, after all – but he could have used a fuller band. The guitar work is better described as “minimalist” than “simple”, and Lawrence’s voice doesn’t have the energy that it did when surrounded by fellow musicians.
Do the songs live up to the promise of those initial hits? Sometimes. Lawrence is a very traditional songwriter, more in line with Hank Sr. than the standard-bearers of later generations. He’s also focused on pain and no-good women almost to the point of parody. Songs like “Two Timin Mama”, “She Stopped Lovin Me”, and “There’s Another Cheatin Heart” apparently cover what he knows, but don’t offer a lot of variety. His voice is perfect for those mournful ballads, though, to the point where he even sounds defeated when the song has him courting women. (“Tonight She’ll Be Making Love To Me Again” simply makes him the lucky recipient of a cheating woman’s affections, but still seems to regret the other man’s situation.) Maybe, though, he intends to sound hopeless when going after women: The less said about his approach on “You Can Hide Your Body But You Can’t Hide Your Beauty”, the better.
Despite all that, Lawrence knows how to write a memorable song. “She Stopped Lovin Me” and “My Hurtin Will Be Done” are every bit as good as the songs that appeared Ghost To A Ghost. “Lot Lizards Don’t Love You”, a trucker’s guide to prostitutes, also stands out. It’s good enough to support the gimmicky nature, but the delivery makes it clear that it’s not intended as a gimmick after all. He has that classic gift of making simple, personal tales feel memorable and catchy.
I firmly believe that Ray Lawrence Jr. has at least one great album in him. He has some handicaps, most notably that he’s decades too old to still be in these early stages of artistic development. Raw & Unplugged mixes great songwriting with too much filler, but it’s still notable for the level of raw talent on display. It’s chief selling point is the vision it provides of Lawrence’s potential future. As an album on its own, though, it feels incomplete.