You don’t know how many chances you get in life. Perhaps that is part of the inspiration for the new release from Greg Wickham. Or maybe it is legacy. A chance to communicate to his children the things that truly move his heart in this world. An opportunity to give them a sense of where they fit in the story of the Wickham line. Whatever the driving focus is, Greg Wickham delivers a batch of songs that he gifts to his family and friends, a personal document of his deep love for honest music.
Wickham notes that he was jealous of his friends Dave and Jimmy Nace because they had their father’s country records to listen to after his death. They could still hear him on those old recordings. “When my dad died, I barely had any recordings of his voice. I included on this album, the only clip I have of him singing,” Wickham states. The impact of a father on a son is hard to underestimate. Wickham makes the conscious effort to leave behind a personal testimony, to be intentional and accessible. And we get to share in his moment.
As co-founders of the alt-country/country-rock group Hadacol, Greg and Fred Wickham released a pair of critically praised records. Their first, Better than This, was a solid effort that garnered respect and created a sense of expectation for what might come next. Their only sin? They were overshadowed by the revelation of Uncle Tupelo. Tweedy and Farrar had staked claim to a large vision of American music. With Hadacol coming along a few years later, the Wickhams would be unfairly overlooked. In February 1999 David Cantwell wrote in No Depression, “The results are some uncommonly good songs, peppered with lyrical images of stunning clarity.” Their penchant for rocking hard was grounded by their respect for roots and blues music, as well as blue collar country.
It has been over fifteen years since Wickham last released a record, but he shows no signs of rust. Backed by brother Fred on guitar and Richard Burgess on bass, the core of the band is essentially three-fourths of Hadacol, and the playing is both relaxed and inspired. Toss in a dozen of Kansas City’s finest spread out over fourteen tracks and you have real sense of community through music.
The album kicks off with “Angel of Mercy (Song for Sophie).” The song rests gently on the shimmer and swirl of the Hammond B3 piloted by the steady hands of Cowboy Bart Colliver. Written as a prayer for his daughter after he has gone, Wickham puts mortality and legacy front and center from the outset:
Sweet melody, stick in her head
help her remember a few words I said
Rock her so gently after I’m gone
make sure she knows my love lingers on
Don’t let my baby cry too long
This is followed by the playful “Me Oh My,” a song that is clearly inspired by Steve Earle circa Copperhead Road. With a rag tag choir backing Wickham the song feels like a house party that you can’t forget and don’t want to. “Small Roles” is a meditation on relationship and the passing of time. Built around a somber piano and violin, the song acknowledges that things will never be the same. As Wickham sings, “time slows down late at night, everybody’s moving on.”
The album really settles into its rag tag glory with the fifth track, “Waterfall.” The loping melody and loopy wild west saloon piano give the song a carefree, loosey-goosey feel. The horn section channels a little Crescent City magic and the whole thing has the feel of a drunken parade on Bourbon Street. Lyrically the song casts images of things past, things that hold a permanent place in our hearts. “You can be my drive-in movie screen, casting dreams in black and white, and I will be your generator.” The whole thing unspools at the end, into a tangle of Fred Wickham’s ’68 Tele, and shoot-the-piano-player giddiness coupled with the ecstatic excess of the horn section. It’s the musical equivalent of, “Honey, I don’t care if the neighbors hear us, let’s make some noise.” The windows might be open, but what the hell.
The title track is a traditional country ballad and positioned smack dab in the middle of the record. A duet with Kasey Rausch, the song is sincere without being maudlin. Rausch’s vocal is tender and intuitive, her voice gently reassuring her lover that she is a safe harbor for his heart. The song, like those moments, is all too brief.
“Wake Me Up” jolts us back into the present. The ramble-tamble energy of the song seems to revive Wickham and company and they cut loose. Fred Wickham’s Telecaster lights up the song with a healthy dose of cowpunk attitude. “Almost to Springfield” boasts some of Wickham’s best writing. Injecting a Dylanesque sneer in his vocal, Wickham sings about a simple man who is “nothing but vanilla from a fella who is oh so plain.” Love hasn’t been particularly kind to Wickham’s central character:
Yeah, I walked around
With my face to the ground
To the sound of a voice of a girl
Who was stuck in my head
And they weren’t joking
When they said I’d be choking
On the bones of a love
That was already clinically dead
Marco Pascolini brings his righteous Telecaster to bear on the proceedings and raises the stakes for everybody. Somebody needs to tell Greg Wickham not to wait so long between albums. This one is a mighty good time. www.theflamestillburns.com