It’s hard to believe it’s taken Kev Wright 61 years to release his solo debut. After all, the Chicago-area guitarist has been a full-time musician for many of those years. He’s performed and recorded with bands and established a reputation for his guitar work, songwriting skills and vocal abilities. But he was always part of a band, the proverbial bridesmaid and never the bride.
That changes this week when the 16-song collection “Journey Road” becomes available through iTunes, Amazon and other outlets. Wright shakes off any shackles, chucks any baggage, steps up and makes the record he’s always wanted to make with his self-released album of originals.
The result is an impressive collection of stories and sounds that show tremendous versatility. The record is primarily acoustic and features a bevy of guest appearances. The music is essentially Americana with healthy doses of country, rock, blues, bluegrass and other inspirations.
Wright recorded the foundational acoustic guitar and vocal tracks last year with John Gifford III at legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala. The rest of the recording was supervised by producer Jason Botka at his Skye Bleu Studios in Villa Park, Ill.
By now, Kev is comfortable recording at Fame. “Journey Road” represents his third recent trip to Alabama to record there. He plays electric guitar on “The Muscle Shoals Sessions” with his former band The Righteous Hillbillies and on “Midnight in Muscle Shoals” with his pals Jeff Givens and the Mug Shot Saints.
“Journey Road’s” title track and “20 Pound Hammer” are songs Kev performed with his friend and Hillbillies bandmate Brent James. The songs are about his grandfather, the late Paul Harrison Wright, an outdoorsman who worked construction and on railroads and to whom “Journey Road” is dedicated.
Kev says his grandfather spoke virtually every word of the lyrics to “Journey Road,” a beautiful ballad about choices, forgiveness and redemption.
“You can spend your whole life worrying, and thinking about your could-have-beens,” he sings. “Don’t keep looking for that stone to block your pass way, you just might find the mountain instead.”
Kev seems to step out from the shadows where the sidemen hang and assert himself as the artist he’s always wanted to be on this record. In that respect, the collection is as powerful as George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass.” “Journey Road” is 55 minutes of great stuff and feels like the release of a backlog of material. The production is so exquisite, these recordings are sure to stand the test of time.
The album opens with the honky tonk boogie of “Someone Else,” one of many tunes featuring Luke Smith on drums and former Hillbilly Johnny Gadeikis on bass. The tune features a rollicking piano track by Botka, who also plays Hammond B3 and guitar on other tracks.
Alex Evans plays stand-up bass and J.D. King picks banjo on “Money Roll Blues,” which features fine harmonies by backup singers Jennifer Botka, Nikki Giblin and Lea Giblin. Steve Haberichter of the bluegrass bands Leadfoot and Henhouse Prowlers takes a distinctive turn on the mandolin on “20 Pound Hammer” and other tunes. These songs happily exist at the crossroads of multiple musical genres.
Country music is represented on songs like “The Likes of You” and “Nothin’ But Good Things,” which feature pedal steel performances by Pat Lyons, who flew in from Austin, Texas to lend his skills to the sessions. “Down to Nashville” is a hard-luck tale of an old soul still trying to make it in the music business.
“So I’m heading down to Nashville, with my songs in a grocery bag and a guitar that took 20 years to grace,” he sings. “Well my friends all pooled their money to help me on my way, but their hopes ain’t high I can see it in their face.”
Kev’s strongest songs are “nonfiction” stories he relates. “Hey Mr. Barcy” is a sad tale about a correctional officer. It’s written about a real-life acquaintance, and Botka plays a beautiful piano part. “Ol’ Black Dog” is a more cheery but equally heartfelt story about a canine friend.
“Crashin’ From the Sky” is another beautiful piece, played on acoustic guitar in an open tuning with touches of vocal harmony. With or without accompaniment, Kev’s music sounds complete.
With 16 songs packed into the collection, a couple feel like mismatched socks. “Forever To Say Goodbye” is an Irish tune, undoubtedly included as an ode to his heritage but stylistically out of place. “Tremblin’” sounds like a previously undiscovered Robert Johnson recording. Kev is capable of recording an entire album of country blues. It whets the listener’s appetite to include one number in that style.
Fans of Kev’s electric guitar work may be surprised by the acoustic tone of the collection, but they shouldn’t be disappointed. “Journey Road” sounds like the record a master musician, songwriter and singer has wanted to make for a long time.