Hugh Bob And The Hustle
Since leaving the rural climes of northern Wisconsin for the relative big-city charms of Milwaukee, Hugh Masterson has done time with a number of successful and semi-successful local bands, most notably Bosio and The Wildbirds. But with the former long gone and the latter currently on hold, Masterson has been focusing on fronting his latest project, the country-fied Hugh Bob And The Hustle. On the group’s self-titled debut album, Masterson—along with Nicholas Stuart, Quinn Scharber, Bradley Kruse, and Justin Krol—trades the swagger and strut of The Wildbirds for breezy country ditties, thick harmonies, and the occasional barn-burning rave-up. It’s a warm, affectionate collection of straight-up AM country gold.
Clearly autobiographical, Hugh Bob could easily be read as a Masterson origin story of sorts. Somber, pedal-steel-drenched opener “Ashland County” conjures up life in one of Wisconsin’s most far-flung regions, full of dirt roads, aging homecoming queens, and broken-down pickups. “North Country” offers a more up-tempo take on small-town life, complete with a thundering chorus custom-built for a booze-soaked tavern shout-along. It isn’t until the twangy “Milwaukee Man” that Masterson leaves the country behind and moves to the city, resulting in one of the album’s strongest songs that practically begs to be used as the city’s unofficial anthem.
While a few tracks like “Passenger Side” hew too close to the alt-country cheese of The Wallflowers, Hugh Bob is at its best when it hits the town and pounds a few shots. “Blame Me” is a winning foot-stomper, “This Bar’s A Prison” is a bawdy shit-kicker about getting hammered and “drinking like my old man,” and “My Truck Feels Like Driving” (another song with a welcome lyrical nod to Wisconsin) benefits from a terrific guest vocal from Nashville’s Nikki Lane. But it’s “Mess With Me” that serves as the album’s thesis statement: “My band’s playing country, nobody better mess with me,” sings Masterson, almost daring the city to lose itself in his group’s sincere and refreshingly un-ironic sound. If this debut is any indication, that shouldn’t be a problem.