Every once in a while I run across an album that I find so endearing, so engaging, and so exciting that I struggle to find words for it. I kept this album in my car for my commute for literally weeks, thinking to myself that the next free evening or weekend I’d pop it out and write about it. So, what might sound like a tale of procrastination, is precisely what makes this album so good. I’ve struggled to put into words what they do so well… they strum instruments and sing traditional roots country music at a superb level. You gotta check out Cahalen Morrison and Eli West.
From the first declining finger picking of “Fiddlehead Fern” I found myself enjoying the album. Banjo and guitar make harmony like they were made for each other. Morrison and West’s voices blend with a subtle eloquence. Sometimes traditional roots music sounds like a few fellers on the back porch with a bit too much “shine.” These guys have no less authenticity, but exhibit a clear precision and professionalism in their playing. They aren’t that good because of liquid courage. They’re just that good. Oh and the line, “I can’t wink without dreaming about you…” is such a great image. Their music is full of that kind of thing.
“Livin’ in America” gives the album’s title in the first line. A distinctly American tune, the melody has shades of the classic bluegrass sounds of folks like Ricky Skaggs and, of course, the more classic guys who preceded him. Working out the strings on both the banjo and guitar on this track, it’s evident that these guys aren’t just strumming a few chords. There’s plenty of finger picking and harmonies to make even the most accomplished bluegrass pickers blush. Despite the Appalachian feel, the song is about the Rockies.
In fairness, there aren’t any “skip” tracks on this album. It’s great from start to finish. For the sake of brevity for the review, I’ll pick out a few favorites. But trust me that you’ll forget your player has a “skip” button when this album is in.
“Anxious Rows” might be one of the best titles for a “sound” that I’ve found in a long time. From the hurried pace of the track to the nearly-unintelligible lyrics, it feels like an anxious track. It reminds me of some of the tracks on the iconic Oh Brother Where Art Thou. There’s a sort of 1930s melancholy somehow captured in the song like a time capsule. Maybe it’s the harmonies… but maybe it’s just music magic to capture that mood.
Of course every classic country album needs a swingin’ slow song. Morrison and West wrote a really good one called “Natural Thing To Do.” You know, “because I love you… it’s the natural thing to do… no matter how you treat me I’ll stand the test… until you see this love of mine stands out from all the rest.” Seriously this is classic Nashville through and through. These guys just “get it.” What impresses me about the song (beyond the fact that it’s just easy to listen to and sing along with) is that it shows remarkable versatility. These guys aren’t just playing one style of traditional music. They can do it all with class and what sounds like ease.
“Down in the Lonesome Draw” is a bit sadder, heavier, and full of symbolism. It has the most “western” feel of the whole album. “If you don’t like Dodge you can always go to Abilene…” It reminds me of an old cowboy movie which, I think, was intentional. I’d love to hear the story behind this one. The bent guitar notes and the high, detached sound of the tenor lead is just perfect for a lonely western feel.
“Ritzville” has an almost Celtic sound to it. It’s clearly influenced by deep American Scotch-Irish roots (as much of Appalachian music is). Then “Green Pastures” is a classic gospel tune from the mid-1960s. It’s been covered by Emmylou Harris and Ricky Skaggs, among others. Anyone who’s listened to much southern gospel music will catch the “still waters” and “good shepherd” references. It’s ultimately a track about heaven. It’s about looking forward to salvation. “Even the Lord will be in that number where we shall reach that heavenly shore.” It strikes me as a blending of several classic hymns and gospel standards. It’s well performed here and feels genuine, which is a nice plus.
“Sinner Come Home” is probably the most powerful track on the album. It has a “big country” feel to it, despite staying true to traditional instrumentation and styling. The meandering melody is the highlight of the track, emphasizing the key phrase, “hoping it’s peace I find.” It’s fundamentally another gospel tune about seeking and finding salvation. The penultimate “Voices of Evening” is a soft, well-sung ballad that’s sure to calm many listeners.
I am certain this is one of those albums that just gets better the more I listen to it. There’s so much going on in each song. I don’t know the half of what’s going on musically, but I know it feels both complex and familiar in the best way possible. It’s also great knowing that there are people keeping this traditional music alive. Here Cahalen Morrison and Eli West are doing more than playing this old music – they are creating and cultivating a particularly important, American style of music. As a person directly influenced by this musical tradition on both sides of my family, thank you for this work and for the spirit by which it is done.