An album is a blank book, meant to be filled with a collection of photographs, or in the case of music, a series of songs. As the new album, Book of Skies, by Northwest singer-songwriter Kevin Brown, begins with the track, “The Empty Page,” we hear the familiar sound of a melodic bluegrass fiddle accompanied by an acoustic guitar, subtle percussion, a tasteful electric guitar, and a banjo. Within a matter of seconds we know, if this were an album of photographs, they would be beautiful, majestic ones that reach down deep into the soul. “The Empty Page” perfectly sets Brown’s new thematically woven work of musical art as sure as a photograph taken by Ansel Adams or the paintings of Andrew Wyeth. As he sings — “I am haunted by the songs of the ages, driven by the distant glow. It’s the empty page that moves me so” — it is clear this will be a collection of songs crafted from personal experience drawn from his Northeastern Washington home.
Book of Skies is Brown’s third release since 2010. He debuted with County Primaries, followed by Beloved Country in 2012. Both albums contain the promise of a greater work. The Book of Skies fulfills that promise. It’s the completion of song-meditations on the interplay between history, the land, and its people. The album is a reminder to stop and consider the world that surrounds us and what it calls us to. It is like the fresh feeling of wind and rain in your face after a long drought. It is a musical nudge to live in the moments that string our lives together like so many pearls and stars. Most of all, Kevin Brown’s Book of Skies is musically and lyrically sculpted inward and outward journey with an invitation to appreciate life.
As the album moves beyond the empty page of a new day, the carefully placed second song, “At the End of the Day,” is a gentle reminder that as life begins for some, it comes to the end for others. The song is a reflection of what a life well-lived may be like, with rewards and regrets, bittersweet with redemption. A beautiful metaphor of life’s end is rendered in the bridge when Brown sings, “tossed like stars into the heavens above, tucked in deep into the ground of love.” Captured for all to see are the self-righteous preachers and polarized politicians described in “High Horse,” which could easily be re-titled, “An Ode to Donald Trump.” The vision contained within “Then Came the Wind,” is a beautifully poetic re-telling of the biblical tale of the Valley of Dry Bone from the prophet Ezekial, which refers to the ressurection of life from death.
But, this series of songs does not contain only the broad strokes of story. On “Close to Home,” we step into the inner chamber of a broken heart missing a loved one. We go into the quintessential country-western song territory, complete with pedal steel guitar and barroom cheating on “Honky-Tonk Haiku.”
“Pale Blue Dot,” looks at the lonely underdog we see every day, sometimes without notice, from the heavens where they appear as little as the problems we miss as we pass them by. The easy melodic feel and sweet country rock of “Sing That Sky,” illuminates the lyrics that bring the listener home to the beauty of the world that surrounds us. While it’s clear that Brown sings of his home — and these songs make that place easy to imagine — like the best songwriters he brings out the universal nature of a deeply personal moment.
Interestingly enough, the two artists whose work echo on this album are Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter and writer Norman Maclean (A River Runs Through It), whose prose covers ground very similar to where Brown goes on this collection of songs. So, it is fitting enough that “Blow Me Away” begins in Missoula, Montana, where the "big skies got the blues, the Blackfoot River runs high, and the highway’s got no time to lose.” It’s a song of wanderlust that rubs well up against contemplative nature of the previous song, “Sing That Sky.” "Blow Me Away" also gives the excellent instrumentalists an opportunity to shine on some fine extended jams between the steel guitar, keyboard, and electric lead guitar.
The title song, “Book of Skies,” opens with a mournful fiddle solo then breaks into a melodic country waltz that dances us one more time through the steps of the risk we take for love in the life we live:
Love is not rocket science, it is close to delight.
And it spills across the pages like twilight
in our book of skies.
The song then seamlessly moves to the instrumental overture, “The Last Page,” closing the book on this album with a piano melody that allows us to put the music down as we would a very good book. It inspires us all to live our lives more fully present, in touch with who we are as people of the land we inhabit.
The production and instrumentation on Book of Skies is elegant and lush in a distinctly country and folk way. It expertly quilts Brown’s warm, intimate voice in the kind of rhythm and grace this work requires. Fiddle player Jenny Anne Mannan, gives the music its wings with high lonesome solos, which help to illuminate the visual lyrics. Pedal steel player Duane Becker provides a natural and skilled counterpoint to both the excellent lead guitar work from Ken Glastre and Brown’s vocals. Becker’s steel guitar playing provides an example of the best in what the instrument can do when matched with strong material and a brother-like bond to the leader of the band.
As an independent work, we’re not likely to see this album touted much this year in Nashville and Austin. However, Kevin Brown’s Book of Skies is a strong contender for one of the best releases of Americana music by a singer-songwriter this year.