It's clear that no one particularly likes Country Winners. While there are plenty of lukewarm reviews online, I've yet to find an unequivocally positive take on the album, and most music publications ignored it altogether. The two sites that apparently mentioned Winners in their best of 2008 lists both have dead links. The album didn't even merit a page on Metacritic. I recently mentioned the album to two friends who I attended a Hamburger stand-up show with, and they sounded uninterested. Even Nathan, in his post about humor in 00's music, and myself, in the comments section, neglected to mention the album.
Why the ignorance? Hamburger's album isn't for everyone. It's a faux-vanity album by a man pretending to be a comedian with terrible timing, awful taste, and a frightening appearance. If you don't enjoy Neil Hamburger's comedy, I can't imagine you'll enjoy this album. And if you don't have a high tolerance for country, you're shit out of luck, as each of the album's 10 songs are straight country.
Sings Country Winners has an ace up its sleeve, however, in the form of some impeccable musicianship. Most of the songs were penned by Gregg Turkington (Neil Hamburger's real-life alter ego), a veteran post-punk musician, label owner, and zine publisher, with writing partner and guitarist Dave Gleason, an actual country musician. The band don't play like they're on a comedy album, but like the old pros they by and large are. The best songs--"Three Piece Chicken Dinner," "Jug Town"--feature some mean guitar, deadly slide in the case of the former, a killer lead in the latter.
But Hamburger is the main attraction, and, as always, he wins by being such a loser. His cringe-inducing throat problems are gracefully absent, but that's the only concession. Neil's singing voice is a whiny, nasal screech, barely different from his speaking one, and it's technically atrocious. Yet it's never grating, and there's humor value in the intentionally poor performances on this supposed vanity album.
The lyrics are also fantastic, the rock bottom "why me?" moments of country being a natural fit for the morose Hamburger. Over the course of Winners, certain fixations emerge, notably divorce and suicide. One of the album's most inspired moments is a cover of the John Entwistle tune "Thinkin' It Over," which synthesizes these themes. There's no punchlines, but it's plenty funny, and fairly tuneful too. Opener "Three Piece Chicken Dinner" has more one liners, for instance
When his personal life is an estranged wife/and a sullen, ungrateful daughterwhich in Hamburgers delivery is one of about five laugh out loud moments on the album. We also discover that, in getting up on stage "to share his gift of laughter," Hamburger has been getting paid in chicken. And the list of non-recyclable objects in "The Recycle Bin," which includes pieces of wood, a humble offering from a man re-entering the dating game, sugar free birthday cakes, and stillborn kittens, gets me every time. There are other moments as good.
Despite this, Sings Country Winners is hardly a classic. It's nowhere near the list of best 00's albums I never posted, and probably wouldn't have made my 2008 Top 10. But it's a good listen, one that doesn't wear thin, even with the presence of a few overlong songs.
I dare say it's become a forgotten album. And that's a shame, because as $1 American Funnymen go, there's none better than Hamburger. Turns out he's not a bad country singer either.