Though I can’t personally relate to the core message of Calico Jim, I can appreciate its hopefulness and optimism and relate to something simpler about it. Far too dense to explain in a short blurb like this, however, so to put it bluntly: It’s one of the best albums of the year so far and cannot be overlooked.
I wrote about this once before, but Georgia almost once became the country music capital of the world, specifically Atlanta. It’s still known as the “cradle of country music,” but it was essential in country music’s – or rather, hillbilly music’s – rise. It was where Fiddlin’ John Carson first proved hillbilly music’s commercial viability on disc, via Okeh Records executive Ralph Peer, and where radio station WSB would broadcast fiddlers and string bands to rural listeners across the United States, only eventually losing out to Nashville, Tennessee (along with several other cities), which dominated the market in every area but television production.
Of course, this leads into an entirely different discussion. When one thinks of country music, after all, they typically think of the southern United States. In truth, that requires one to make a clear distinction of what they mean when they discuss the two entities as being one and the same. The music itself is a melting pot of influences from the folk traditions of the British Isles that found its way not only to unexpected places in the United States in New York City, New England, and the general American Midwest, but also in much of Canada, including British Columbia and the Canadian Maritimes – all at the same points in time when the country music industry was forming in the American South. “Industry” – that’s the distinction, where the birth of the “country music” we know today started as a commercialized extension of rural folk music, adopting its identity and development from the southern culture surrounding it.
Again, more points that can lead to more discussions, both of which can inspire bad talking points in its formation and the history behind it, but also good ones in what it’s helped foster, nearly 100 years later. The point: When I heard the buzz surrounding Pony Bradshaw’s latest album, Calico Jim, centered around a fictional, displaced southerner in Georgia doing his best to adapt to his place in the modern day, that history immediately swirled back around in my mind, and, judging from the first few singles, got me excited as to where Bradshaw was going to take those discussions. And if the name is unfamiliar to you … well, he released a debut album a few years ago on Rounder Records that slipped through the cracks for me, apparently. Going back to it, it’s solid, groove-heavy folk music, but also adopts a familiar sound for that scene that fails to differentiate itself much outside of some excellent songwriting. I might have had “Shame” on my “best of” list for singles, but I’m not sure how much staying power the album would have had for me otherwise. Harsh as that sounds, I’m comfortable saying it when, for one, Bradshaw left Rounder not long afterwards to self-release his newest album, which was reportedly much leaner and more cohesive than that debut. And since I’ve obviously set up expectations for it already, let’s (finally) dig into that discussion.
You know, with the general state of the music industry still in disarray from last yearband the general release schedule still looking fairly dry – compared to other years, that is – there’s a part of me that’s a bit fearful this album won’t receive the attention it deserves. Make no mistake, not only is Calico Jim a huge improvement off of that aforementioned debut, it’s going to be one of the best albums of the year. It’s a beautifully produced project watching characters come to grips with how to live and reconcile with a culture’s history while working to forge a new path ahead, aiming, ultimately, to learn from it and work towards something better, both personally and for all.
Now, as for how that appeals to a native New Yorker, I’m reminded a lot of what I loved about Charles Wesley Godwin’s Seneca, my favorite album of 2019, because it’s another album I’m also now finally learning what it is I’ve really always loved about it: It’s quaint, it’s thoughtful, there’s an environmentalist streak to the writing, and the earnest love and passion for the surroundings discussed is evident. It’s a love for simplicity and one’s roots that, corny as it may sound, is something I can relate to and adds a populist embrace to its sentiment, regardless of any cultural divide.
But whereas that project told its stories from both the past and present, Calico Jim is more concerned with present and future, relying on history to help fill in the blanks, rather than let it dwell within the scene. Simply put, what I love most about is a sense of calm and tranquility in embracing a simple life, but this is an album that can go beyond that to deliver on all fronts. Vocally, Bradshaw might not necessarily have huge pipes, though he did surprise me with his belting towards the end of “Guru,” but there’s a ton of weathered fire and emotive subtlety that pulls a lot of the weight. And even if Bradshaw never directly inserts himself into the space, the performances do seem to come from a personal place.
Of course, that’s a note on instrumentation and production, and while the easy note I’ve seen made about this album is that it’s a more subdued offering from Bradshaw, I’m inclined to disagree. This is production that emphasizes intimacy and buildup, favoring progressions that bolster the content and making sure each acoustic pluck, wave of pedal steel and ragged edge of fiddle come through crystal clear – or blends in the electric guitars exceptionally well and lets those slow burns snarl with a weathered intensity. Take “Dope Mountain,” for example. The liquid guitar line sways, it’s a bit hypnotic in trying to understand the beauty of the land surrounding these characters and the hope for a better tomorrow, and then that crescendo sneaks in to give it the cathartic outro it desperately needs. The same goes for the title track, where the plucky acoustic groove grows more pronounced until its title character has to take a stand against “a mess of suits” taking advantage of mountain communities, yet it’s never uneasy. It’s in control and free-flowing like its title character, and then it heightens up the tempo and tension against the blast of pedal steel before winding back down, but not without making sure its message is clear.
That’s the thing, too. These moments color the entire album: from the minor, moody sway of “Hillbilly Possessed” that leads to something even more sinister; the ragged fiddle in the low-end of “Let us Breathe” to echo that muffled message, where even though I’m not wild about the faster, rushed flow and vocal, I understand the stylistic choice; the marching plucks of bass and smoldered electric guitars that drive “Sawtoothed Jericho”; to the droopy slow-burning groove of both “Bodark” and “Guru.” It carries the weight and magnetism needed to lift itself off the pages. I’m not as wild about the brighter, chipper tones of “Foxfire” as a whole, if only because it creates a sense of tonal whiplash, but you need that moment of levity on a project as heavy as this.
But that’s opening a discussion of lyrics and themes altogether (as if this review wasn’t long enough already), and when circling back to the aforementioned discussion points that frame this album, again, this is a complex meditation on being a Southerner in the modern day. The heritage is there and a lot of it is unlikable, but there’s a duty to embrace it anyway and build something new and better from it. But there’s never any glorification or condemnation of the surrounding culture – it’s more of a personal journey on establishing one’s own code of ethics through characters we’re bound to judge or stereotype. It’s not always the most accessible listen, but there’s layers to this type of dense poetry, like the characters within the title track and “Dope Mountain” who are proud to be hillbillies. But they aren’t white trash, and if the coal and steel industries that have devastated mountain communities enough would “let them breathe” (on, well, “Let us Breathe”), they might be able to start anew. It’s a way of life that’s decaying, and, as he says, “the counterpoint is under the melody” of embracing something still, but for those who want to dig in their heels and do something about it, all should not be lost.
But that chance never really fluctuates when dealing with real stories, and maybe if there’s any criticism to be made for this project, it’s that it never quite reaches any easy solution or answer other than one of personal fulfillment. Dig a little deeper into the character sketches, however, and you get glimpses of why that culture is both special and likely inaccessible to outsiders, embracing certain stereotypes in some ways while looking to confront others. The most complex example is “Hillbilly Possessed,” about a snake-handling preacher who heals a woman implied to be suicidal and carrying other mental health problems, where Bradshaw looks on with a dual sense of confusion and awe as a placebo effect takes hold and works. Or take “Jimmy the Cop,” which pretty much answers the question of, “what if the character from Steve Earle’s ‘Copperhead Road’ badly screwed up his life after the song ended?” It’s quaint, it’s a little sad in sketching out the irony of an uncle and nephew crystal meth-cooking duo being raided by the same cop who stole the nephew’s wife, even if the subtext suggests he had it coming. Again, not so much judgmental towards these characters as it is ways of sketching out means of survival, where the hope for something better – or something stable – remains somewhere between the lines.
Again, though, that’s me stepping back and appreciating it from afar. I think what I personally gravitate toward with this record is, again, that sense of peaceful tranquility in appreciating one’s natural surroundings and the general optimism that change can happen someday. I’m appreciative of its way of portraying a culture that’s not yet lost, sketching out portraits through observations and an honesty in decoding the interpretations of them. Simple as it sounds, the beauty is in the individuality complexities that shape who we are and how we contribute to something larger, and when it sounds this utterly sublime and fires on all cylinders, it’s set the bar for future releases this year.
(Decent to strong 9/10)
- Favorite tracks: “Calico Jim,” “Hillbilly Possessed,” “Dope Mountain,” “Bodark,” “Guru”
- Least favorite track: “Foxfire” (and even that’s pretty good)