Although I never saw them live, Big Back Forty was one of the first Columbus bands I truly became a fan of. My brother was already a fan and he gave me a couple of promo samplers in cardboard sleeves he’d picked up, and I liked the music immediately. Unfortunately, by that time the band had already broken up. If there is such a thing as “midwest rock,” this is what it sounds like to me.
Big Back Forty
Polydor - 31453 7170 2
At this time in my life especially, and still today to a degree, southern rock was my thing. The Allman Brothers were my favorite band, then Gov’t Mule. But I resisted country music strongly, really until pretty recently. Big Back Forty wasn’t southern rock, and I don’t like the term alt-country - but they seemed like the perfect melding of straightforward rock with just enough country influence and the appropriate amount of bleakness to feel representative of this place. As Lantern reviewer Dorian Ham noted, “It’s possible to hate country and still like this album.”
The songs are all credited to the band, but Sean Beal and Barry Hensley are the songwriters and they have serious songwriting chops. The songs are catchy and polished but don't sound overtly poppy or pandering. They sound honest - sometimes bleak, sometimes dark, but never depressing. Barry Hensley’s money pedal steel adds just enough twang to make it sound midwestern without being country. And Sean Beal’s low register voice reflects more of a Sleepy LaBeef-style rockabilly than country. A perfect match. If you can listen to Blood without having it in your head the rest of the day, you’re stronger than me.
Joe Hardy, best known for his work with ZZ Top, produced Bested at Columbus' John Schwab Studios and the results are impressive. It’s the sound of a band playing together in a room. It’s just a great-sounding record and it still stands up. Veteran mix engineer Jack Joseph Puig (The Black Crowes, Jellyfish, Aimee Mann) seats everything just right as far as I’m concerned. It’s a guitar and drum-forward mix - just right. The harmonies from Barry Hensley stand out and help provide the melancholic feel throughout. The rhythm section of Steve and Pat McGann has that brotherly chemistry. Supportive and unobtrusive. There are a wide variety of instruments all over this - you’ll hear everything from accordion to sleigh bells and everything fits right in.
For the most part, the album was well-received critically and seems to have only grown in stature. Nine reviews on Amazon - all 5 stars. Some positive retrospective reviews out there, and a few lukewarm contemporary ones. Allmusic calls it “a compelling blend of traditional country and '70s guitar crunch.” Unfortunately, the McGann brothers weren’t on board with committing to the ratcheted-up life on the road that came with promoting a big label record and left just as the album was released. Dan Cochran (bassist from Beal’s previous band, Feversmile, and later founder of the late Four String Brewing) and drummer Mark Boquist (who would go on to play with Mark Lanegan) came on board, but by 1998 they’d broken up.
Not too long ago while I was doing research, as I do, I stumbled on a digital release of a second album, Shaky Heartbeats. Released in 2019 without a peep of publicity, I bought it immediately. It’s a worthy successor, but who plays on it, and when and where it was recorded are all mysteries. If anyone knows any of the details, please leave a comment.
10 Party Girl
11 Big Man
12 Count To Ten
13 Been So Gone
Phonographic Copyright (p) – PolyGram Records, Inc.
Copyright (c) – PolyGram Records, Inc.
Manufactured By – A&M Associated Labels
Marketed By – A&M Associated Labels
Published By – Plowshare Publishing
Recorded At – John Schwab Recording
Mixed At – Ocean Way Recording
Mixed At – Ardent Studios
Mastered At – Gateway Mastering
A&R – Andrew Brightman
Art Direction, Design – Caroline DeVita
Bass – Steve McGann
Drums, Percussion, Other [Foot], Other [Box] – Patrick McGann
Engineer [Assistant] – Joe Viers
Guitar, Organ [Hammond B-3], Accordion, Harmonica, Vocals – Sean Beal
Guitar, Pedal Steel Guitar, Mandolin, Banjo, Vocals – Barry Hensley
Management – SPI Presents
Mastered By – Bob Ludwig
Mixed By – Jack Joseph Puig, Joe Hardy (tracks: 7 to 9, 11 and 13)
Photography By – Matthew Welch
Producer, Engineer – Joe Hardy
Written-By – Big Back Forty