“I was always content to be ‘just the bass player.’ I don’t mind lurking in the background, digging in to the groove and getting lost in the music,” says the well-travelled bassist Rick Wagner. “But in early 2019 I found myself with a batch of songs I’d written over the past few years and decided if I was ever going to put them out now was the time.”
The result is the debut album by Wagner’s alter ego Luther Black and the Cold Hard Facts. In addition to laying down his well-honed bass chops, Wagner also sings and plays most of the instruments on the impressive debut. Released in early 2020 just before the pandemic turned the world upside down, Luther Black and the Cold Hard Facts quickly caught the notice of Americana music fans and critics. “Great stories about wisdom gained through hardscrabble living, similar to Ray Wylie Hubbard, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt” noted the Americana Music Show. Wagner’s honest, plainspoken lyrics come straight from the heart with a nod towards Outlaw Country’s founders Willie, Waylon, Johnny and Kris, delivered in a unique gravelly voice that “hits with a cool sincerity that is a genuine rarity in the modern musical landscape” (American Songwriter). Down and dirty blues-rockers like “Trouble” and “Proof” sit nicely besides introspective folk songs like “59,” “World Won’t Wait,” and “Longer Than A Country Mile” as the raspy voiced singer bares his soul and confesses his sins.
The band followed up their debut with the single “Heartbreak Lullabye” in July 2020. It was written by Wagner as a tribute to John Prine shortly after the iconic singer-songwriter passed away from Covid-19 in the early days of the pandemic. “The morning after John Prine left us I was sitting in my studio, alone with a guitar and a melancholy feeling,” says Wagner. “I started fingerpicking in a very Prine-ish way and thinking about how much John meant to me and so many others, and decided to try writing an homage to him.” The song’s soft, lilting feeling gives a surreal sense of life during Covid as it recounts what we had and what we lost during the pandemic.
With their latest single “Alamo Way” (released May 21, 2021 on DA Records), Luther Black and the Cold Hard Facts look at both sides of the political divide in America. A mid-tempo rocker with Americana overtones, the song steadily builds to an emotional, triumphant crescendo thanks to a dazzling guest backup vocal performance by NYC soul singer Brandi Thompson. While the sentiment may be a reflection of dark times in America it also offers a beacon of hope. “I’ve always tried to stay clear from politics in my songs but I just couldn’t sit on the sidelines and watch as the country was being torn apart by hatred, lies and conspiracy theories,” says Wagner. From a streamlined start with a pulsing beat, sparse tasteful guitars and the steady rhythm of Matt Wissler’s mandolin, the song intensifies into a tempestuous sonic landscape; equal parts Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Nick Cave.
As a bonus, “Alamo Way” comes with a b-side, a cover of Bob Dylan’s beautiful and poignant “Most of the Time.” “I wanted to do something to mark Dylan’s 80th birthday,” says Wagner. “I love the transformative nature of the song and the way the character is content amidst turmoil. Daniel Lanois’ production on the original is so great in creating the perfect atmosphere for the song. I tried to stay true to that and not reinvent the wheel, but to pay homage to this great piece of art.”
Based in Maplewood, NJ, in the shadow of New York City, Luther Black and the Cold Hard Facts is Wagner’s first solo effort after several years working as a sideman, session player, producer and touring musician. His long list of recording and touring credits includes The dB’s, Silos, Paul Collins, Emily Duff, and Storytown. His journey from a tiny Pennsylvania coal town to Greenwich Village to the New Jersey suburbs has had more than a few ups and downs, but he has lived to tell the tale. “I had the good fortune to play bass for a lot of really great songwriters and little by little that rubbed off on me. Now it’s my turn.”