Every now and then a CD comes across my listening station that is so steeped in reality you can feel the dirt, smell the hobo soup steaming, feel the rain in the air and sense the struggle as it ripens in a man or woman’s face.
Grant Maloy Smith has pieced together an album he's been working on since 2014 of 13 diverse songs that have the lyrics and music as potent as Woody Guthrie, as intense as John Trudell and dusted with the trials and tribulations of Tom Joad – Steinbeck and “The Grapes of Wrath.” It’s all in the notes being played on this album: “Dust Bowl – American Stories.”
Grant is not a greenhorn at this music he’s been around the barn a few times.
He’s not a country staple the way radio plays it today. Not much music here about Saturday night barn dances, pick-up trucks with Confederate flags and redneck bandanas, girls in tight cut-offs and straining halters, getting drunk on beer and waking up in a cotton field. Grant is closer in theory to the Outlaw singers, The Highwaymen, the outsiders -- on the fringe of country music as a message genre and not just hokum. On the edge where folk and singer-songwriters sing with a maverick dialect. Those who never crossed paths or genres (the Woody Guthrie’s and the Willie Nelsons, the Hamilton Camp’s and the Kris Kristofferson’s, or the Pete Seeger’s and the Waylon Jennings, the Lyle Lovett's and k.d. lang's. And the Joe Ely's and Steve Earles).
However, Grant has sprinkled history and a modicum of style into his mix of expressive country music. He isn't afraid to slip in folk-tales of environmental matters without bowing to agendas. And he does get down with it but he never allows the music to weigh him down. He’s not a singer who is so much bent on literature and hard times though his songs will lay down thunderous beats liberally. Then, sprightly add conservative accordions to pepper his music, rather than salt his music, as he's done on his third track “So Far Away.” So, don’t worry about his message all the time – he has what most singers and teller of stories don’t have: grit.
This song will grab your attention with its adept drum beat and at times vibrant percussion. Steve Sokes provides the bright fiddle, Jeff Taylor colorizes the whole tune with his accordion and Skoota Warner beats the skins. Grant is in fine form with his singing on this track – a first class country-song the old fashion way. Grant Maloy Smith has quite an ensemble playing with him and they are all accomplished not only with their instruments but in the atmosphere they create.
Grant is an acquired taste. This you must know up front. But acquired tastes is what makes artists interesting. John Prine is an acquired taste. Lyle Lovett definitely. Jimmie Dale Gilmore -- something special in his expressive tenor. As well, many fans are more accustom to the country-perfection of Travis Tritt, the old-fashioned neotraditional country vocal of Randy Travis, the classic vocal of George Jones, the great vocalists like Jim Reeves and Charley Pride. The standard commercial country of today's hat-singers George Strait and Garth Brooks.
But -- no, there's none of that here. Grant wears boots and a hat but he is cut from the Jimmie Dale Gilmore cloth, the Townes Van Zandt songwriting school, and most probably drank a sip or two from the Gram Parsons musical shot glass. As far as the music is concerned his recipe is filled with outlaw-Appalachia, Depression-era folk, railroad spikes, Oklahoma crude and hospitality with Guthrie determination.
There’s a dash or two of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott energy if you listen carefully. It's all mixed up into a stew of American stories I don’t think any other singer/songwriter can approach today. Sorry, Bruce, there are moments in this collection that are far more stirring and filled with character than “Nebraska.” Now, that solo album of Springsteen’s is a work of stark reality and a spark of art no doubt. I won't undermine that fine collection. Instead of Jack Daniels, Grant plies Old Crow – it’s what U.S. Grant drank. The album “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” was equally compelling by Bruce. But, if you’re looking for more, and on a more emotional level that is delivered naked and with iron inspiration – Grant Maloy Smith has the hammer that hits the nail. He has plucked the feathers from that bird and has squeezed out all the water from that towel.
The voice is perfect for this kind of endeavor. It’s feisty but not lecturing. It’s assured and not sorry. At times, it’s a ball of cotton with alcohol. Nothing is really sugar-coated yet it is entertaining. Listen closely to each song and you can hear so much musicality going on in-between the basic melody. The musicians are stellar. The opening track has a stark violin driven tale with crisp acoustic guitar and then Grant’s startling vocal begins the tale of “Old Black Roller.” Will it take more than one listen to grasp Grant's art? For some yes. But the exploration will be worth it.
The tune just unfolds like a long carpet of notes where multiple instruments come tumbling out. This is a monster track – bound to become a classic. It’s magical from its opening notes. It has dark melodic Americana hocus pocus that is prominent in the music used in the HBO series’ “Carnivale,” (which took place in the very era Grant identifies with on this new collection) or “Deadwood.”
What is the “old black roller?” It’s that damn black scary cloud that swept across Oklahoma and buried it in a fine mist of deadly dirt during the Depression years. So fine a dirt that when they opened cans of food they found these dirt particles inside the can.
“We’re hard as horseshoe nails…” -- a creative optimistic line despite the horror of that sight across the farmlands. Tim Lorsch lays down a creepy violin as well as viola and cello. Peter Janson plies the acoustic guitar and Rob Ickes -- dobro. This music is also a reminder of the darker period of Bob Dylan (“Not Dark Yet,” “Mississippi”) -- and it’s that good, that memorable.
The more upbeat “Lily of the Valley,” a sad love story: “I wonder if she thinks about me today…” The song has some vibrant banjo by Scott Vestal, and pedal steel by Mike Johnson. The flute by Wouter Kellerman is also effective. None of the instruments overcrowd the other.
A real cool beat opens “Ride That Train,” (there’s never enough train songs). Acoustic guitars, fiddles, dobros, and a B3 add to the overall silky presentation. The players fit their notes into the tightest places and they come out unscathed. The duel between violin and dobro is expressive and Grant lets loose vocally as the song proceeds to the piano finale.
“Isht A Lhampko (Have Strength)” is a Native American tale with Gareth Laffely’s Native American flute and Eagle Bone front and center. Lorenza Ponce’s beautiful fiddle work also complements the performance. Grant’s acoustic guitar frames the tune respectfully and solidifies this album's authenticity. This was an album that was not without careful planning. By track 6 a barn burner begins. “Me Time,” rocks with Mike Johnson’s pedal steel, Steve Stokes’ fiddle and the driving drums of George Correia. Excellently arranged the song could get the most stubborn non-dancer up on their feet.
Mandolin, acoustic guitar, banjo and pedal steel play prominent roles in “Never Seen the Rain,” and Grant’s peculiar but appropriate voice for these types of songs finds its voice beautifully. Filled with Townes Van Zandt, Jimmie Dale Gilmore inspiration -- that cream rises to the top of the milk bottle on a winters day. Simple, catchy and traditionally cultivated. The pedal steel shines on this track.
Grant’s ability to capture the heartland in his music is amazing.
Set aside the music for a moment, and listen to the lyrics. Many are prairie, farmer and heartland poetry. In “All the Long Way,” Grant sings with a hat tip to the Humpty Dumpty poem with a play on words: “Now all of our horses, and all of our men, can’t put together, the things that we bent / No, my son…can’t put together the things that we bent.” This is not Springsteen style this is all Grant Maloy Smith at his cleverest. And for my buck, this is where commercial country doesn’t go.
A friend in the country business once told me that fans of this type of music don’t want to think. They want to boogie. Dance, laugh, get drunk and rowdy. Those are the songs that sell the best. Unless of course, you can sing like Jim Reeves or Patsy Cline. I’m not entirely sold on that theory. Many of George Jones’ best songs were thought-provoking. Roger Miller’s songs, those that were not novelty-oriented were brilliant (“River in the Rain”).
“I Come from America,” is one of the best, recent pro-American songs I've heard in a long time. This is Grant’s “This Land Is Your Land.” The irresistible lines: “…I come from America…America…America…I come from America…America’s from me.” Strong, simple and not offensive yet, the point is made and even a poor immigrant who comes to this country can eventually say those lines as well and with pride. Because it would be true. This is Grant Maloy Smith’s “Nebraska” and he has written a heartland masterpiece.
He has poured a lot of time, money and patience into this work and it can be heard. “Fate turns like an old oak wheel…” opens “And the Rain Comes Down.” Melody-rich with nice thudding drums (sounds like beating on a box), and the pedal steel winds around the tune like a summer breeze through the cotton laundry on the lines. The drums, percussion, and bass are deep and their emphasis is beautiful throughout. The strains of the fiddle by Cathy Clasper-Torch add nice color to the melody. Probably the most fully realized song on the album. This is just stunning. Grant is flawless in his interpretation and the music has guts with countrified rousing notes.
Grant concludes his album in quite a dramatic manner. A reprise of “Old Black Roller,” that bellows in and may even be stronger than the opening version. This sent chills down my spine. Many of our Outlaw heroes and folk singers are growing older and many have retired or died. Grant seems to have the material to keep that tradition alive.
Every single musician associated with this project exhibited their expertise. They balanced the performance. Nothing was bombastic, silly, shallow, novelty-oriented or spare. They followed Grant’s recipe and the album is one second shy of 45 solid minutes of the music that is America. This is a fine musical document.
The 13-song collection was produced by Grant Maloy Smith and Jeff Silverman.
Recorded in a variety of studios from Tennessee, New York, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. The band -- too large to name everyone involved. Their names are prominently credited in a 20-page stitched color lyric book with all details. One of the best, booklet and cover designs I've seen in a long time and Grant himself designed it. So, if he ever decides to leave music he can fall back into design work.
My copy of the CD came with a little vial of real Oklahoma dirt….to get closer to the music….thanks for the dirt from Oklahoma….
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John Apice / No Depression / May 2017