Bruce Henderson’s backing band is the New York-based High Plains Drifters, an outfit that includes Saturday Night Live’s G.E Smith (the one who looks like Skeletor) on guitar and Paul Ossola (the one who looks like Thoreau) on bass. To their credit, Smith and Ossola, who never cease mugging on television, manage to keep the focus on their frontman on Henderson’s debut, The Wheels Roll. The result is that Henderson’s voice — kinda Dylanesque, sorta T Bone Burnettish — is surrounded by tight, rootsy playing that purrs right along, whether swaying through a delicate, mandolin-flecked waltz, swinging with a hot fiddle (George Strait should cover “Big City” immediately) or ripping through a bar-band rocker.
But the thing that wants to matter most here is the songs. In fact, hidden behind the disc’s easy, rootsy sound is the heart of a real singer-songwriter. A transplanted Oklahoman, Henderson opens the album with “Feet Of Clay”. “Nerves of steel, feet of clay,” he admits, “I fall in love, then walk away,” and the remainder of The Wheels Roll is primarily devoted to circling this theme — the failures of will that can doom our relationships — from a variety of perspectives. Backed by mournful accordion, one song features a stubborn man who finds himself alone and “swimming through the ashes of the bridges I have burned,” while the guy in “White Lines/Blacktop”, a great Keith Richards-style rocker, has decided to swallow his pride and get his ass back on home where it belongs. Now and then, Henderson’s lyrics can turn out to be silly and too clever, as in “I cried so hard I thought my face would rust” (I hear those metal faces’ll do that on you), but more regularly they are cleverly revealing, as in “You want a house of love/I want a mobile home.”
Not everything works, especially in the disc’s second half. “I Can Drive” and the title track are the kind of bar-band roots-rock that cooks up right in a club, no doubt, but comes off like a pedestrian Joe Ely at home in your living room. Cloying and trying too hard, “Texas or New Mexico” edges into Dan Fogleberg territory. Mainly, though, The Wheels Roll is a fine debut, filled with smart, well-played roots rock.