The short version: Ben Jarrell’s ‘Troubled Times’ opens a door for a new generation of blistering, good-timing, outlaw and honky tonk country music.
- Favorite tracks: “Daddy’s Prison Radio,” “Big Iron Train,” “Black Helicopter,” “Colorado Bound,” “Troubled Times In A Tribal Town”
- Least favorite track: “Marissa”
- Rating: 8/10
The long version: There’s times where the formation of a project just looks like a good thing, and you pray it turns out as good as you hope, both critically and personally.
Ben Jarrell will be a new name to country music fans. After moving to Nashville and releasing a five-song acoustic EP in 2018, Jarrell hired some big talent to ensure his debut album would come out swinging. First, he hired Mike and Steve Daly for pedal steel and lead guitar duties. He then hired Kevin Black, bassist for Margo Price and formerly for Sturgill Simpson. Finally, he hired drummer Taylor Powell from Nikkie Lane’s band. In other words, given the names associated with the players, while I expected quality, I’d be remiss not to mention some lingering fears in the back of my mind that this might also be another tacky-sounding vintage project from East Nashville.
Instead, Jarrell’s debut album doesn’t let the listener down in the slightest. We haven’t heard many albums pull from the outlaw country well much this year, but Jarrell joins the ranks of artists like Whitey Morgan and Cody Jinks recording some of the most raw and swaggering music today.
And I bring up Morgan specifically for a reason, because what’s always worked about his projects is that he doesn’t sound like a throwback act. The production has a refreshing modern punch and clarity to it to keep it sounding heavy and exciting in a unique way.
That’s largely the impression I get from Jarrell as well. The guitars sound pristine at times and scuzzy at other points, the bass sounds very resonant and thick, the pedal steel is fantastic and the drums are also booming.
But more than that, Trouble Times takes a different approach to the outlaw template. Aside from the murder ballad of “Troubled Times In A Tribal Town,” the album is mostly centered on running away from trouble. It’s also a very loose record, with a heavier focus on instrumental solos and tones to keep it sounding fun.
And Jarrell does it all with a deep, rough, husky singing voice reminiscent of other country singers. He might not necessarily be a distinct performer, but he’s a good singer nonetheless.
What does distinguish Troubled Times, as mentioned before, is its scope and presentation. This is an album with a lot of instrumental flavor to it, like the plucky acoustics and galloping percussion driving the momentum of “Troubled Times In A Tribal Town.” “Big Iron Train” carries a big crunchy groove to it with swaggering electric guitars and jubilant pedal steel to set the track ablaze, and “Black Helicopter” is the kind of paranoid, fuzzed-out sounding track that shows Sturgill Simpson isn’t the only artist with this market cornered.
Basically, it’s a fun record not meant to be taken too seriously, and that’s only further evidenced by the closing track, “Colorado Bound.” The track itself is high-strung, cocaine-riddled rockabilly, and you can pretty much guess the meaning of the song based on the title. But that’s why he uses the second half of the song to essentially read the liner notes for his album, and that’s a cool concept I’d love to see take off.
On the other hand, Jarrell can also be a compelling storyteller. The album hits a slower point when it comes to “Marissa” and “My Old Friend.” Aside from the reverb being way too thick on the former track, the song tries to frame the redemptive story of a woman saved from sin through clichéd metaphors. Comparing struggles to storms is a fairly basic move for songs in this vein, and elsewhere, “My Old Friend” never really fleshes out the background to make the listener feel that attached to the story told here.
Elsewhere, though, “Troubled Times In A Tribal Town” is a gritty and bold move for an opening track, painting the picture of an awkward man growing up in a backward small town. Even when he finds a lover and murders her, the small town brushes it off as if it’s nothing, giving him the death penalty with little to no fanfare at all.
But again, the album’s main focus is, oddly enough, staying out of trouble (or, at the very least, not getting caught while in trouble). This brings us to the album highlight, “Daddy’s Prison Radio,” a track carried mainly through Jarrell’s spoken-word dialogue and a lonely recurring riff. The track is direct and honest in its framing – the narrator’s father wasn’t a bad man, but he was involved with bad people. The song is also quick to point out the father’s faults and how that riff has separated him and his son, enough to the point where the son is quick to acknowledge they likely won’t see each other again. Yet he still cares and loves him, and if he can’t reach him to convert him back to a good person through words, the least he can do is provide some comfort through music. It’s a heartbreaking track that manages to cut deep, and don’t be surprised to see this song as a discussion candidate for being one of the best of the year come December.
In terms of staying out of trouble though, the album also gets that point across in less subtler, more zanier moments. There’s the aforementioned “Black Helicopter,” but even “Colorado Bound” comes with the implication that he just wants everyone to leave him alone so he can go get high and smoke his troubles away.
Of course too, the album still pays homage to past tropes in country music. “Gearjammer Blues” shares a similar melody and chord progressions with Waylon Jennings’ “I’m A Ramblin’ Man,” for example. “Highway Whine” is an ode to well … getting on the highway and moving on, finding escapism in another easy-going, loose way.
Ultimately, I had a lot of fun with Troubled Times. Jarrell is by no means reinventing the wheel with his brand of material, but his presentation and execution is what’s most exciting about this album. The production is meatier and heavier to give it some real punch and flavor, and Jarrell’s voice is a good fit for the material. In some ways, this is the kind of looser album not really meant for pure critical analysis, yet Troubled Times also shows it can balance style with substance through two well-written tracks in the title track and “Daddy’s Prison Radio.” And the fact that it ends the way it does on “Colorado Bound” wins its extra points all around. Overall, Troubled Times shows an exciting newcomer in Jarrell, and very few albums will be as much of a blast as this one in 2019.