Let’s talk about hype.
Because of the rapid and constantly moving age we live in, we’re always in search of the next big thing – and especially in country music, given the independent boom that’s occurred within the last decade. It’s a two-pronged exercise. On one hand, discovery of new acts is how we manage to sidestep country radio and find new acts worth our attention, and in a relatively easy format, at that. On the other hand, one can argue that constant consumption doesn’t lead to much actual absorption of the music, so when you hear people tout this artist or that artist as the next this or that, it can get exhausting – especially when the most typical comparisons made, like to, say, Sturgill Simpson or Tyler Childers, are for artists still actively making music.
Now, the core of that exercise is nothing new; older, more established acts have always eventually been phased out for newer acts, and it’s a purely cyclical exercise for any musical genre. The two differences, to me, come through in the even quicker timing and fan involvement, especially with the constant evolution of social media and that “personal” connection. We, as fans, want to be “in the know” on budding artists and share their music with others. The downside to that is that it can lead to certain fans wanting to claim authority over that artist and not allow them follow their own muse as they progress, hence why when the newer material doesn’t sound like the older material, we turn to the budding artists influenced by that older material, to make a long story short.
And as for why I specifically brought up Simpson and Childers as comparison points earlier, we have the arrival of an artist already drawing comparisons to them in Cole Chaney. For context, he, like them, is a Kentucky native, and one who came up through the Red Barn Radio program and hasn’t been active for too long otherwise; even his debut album announcement came somewhat out of nowhere. With that said, there’s a lot of buzz surrounding him, and early reports suggested he was in the same vein as another class of budding artists looking to push a lo-fi, mostly acoustic sound. Only, the single release ahead of this project was driven by some welcome fiddle and had the actual firepower to make up for its ragged edges. With that said, I’m usually one to approach these sort of acts with caution, if only because those comparisons set up unfair expectations later on, or just come from those jumping the gun on someone that sounds similar to someone else but doesn’t offer enough of their own unique perspective to justify the hype.
So to answer the burning question that I’m late to offering my own answer for, yes, I do think Cole Chaney’s Mercy is a damn great debut album from out of the blue. I wouldn’t say it’s within my absolute top favorites of the year – we’ll get to why – but even distancing myself from that, this is well-textured and balanced Appalachian-bred country music that wins me over on sound and content alone, and it absolutely deserves a wider audience.
Of course, if we’re left answering the other question of whether Chaney is too indebted to those influences, I’d have to flip the question around. Unlike Simpson and Childers’ most recent work, I’d say Chaney’s work digs into the true heart of darkness surrounding rural life in Kentucky through gritty, expansive stories that the former artist simply never aimed to explore as often and that the latter artist mostly covered with his earliest work. If anything, I was reminded more of Charles Wesley Godwin’s 2019 album Seneca or Pony Bradshaw’s Calico Jim from this year in its distinct regional dialect (Godwin’s work explores West Virginia while Bradshaw’s explores Georgia), especially in the dual complexities that come with living in a modern day American South and the paradoxical romanticization and condemnation of it.
And on the album’s best moments, I’d argue Chaney does it just as well, too, if not quite as consistently throughout. Before we get to that, though, let’s the address the immediate positives: the lyrics and themes. From a broad perspective, I wouldn’t say Chaney is necessarily approaching those aforementioned complexities with the most unique framing in mind, but he’s got a knack for painting harrowing, deeply disturbing narratives through those stories that give this album its heartbeat. And if anything, Chaney’s perspective is damn-near southern-Gothic in its sorrowful outlook. It’s told best through the album’s first two tracks: “Ill Will Creek” completely stomps any romanticization of deep rural poverty while “Coalshooter” reveals the deeper realities of it, told through the eyes of a child helping his father escape the coal-mining industry that speaks to the further paradoxical generational obligations and pride that comes with it. There are those that support staying as a duty or obligation to those that came before them, and others, like here, that support ripping away that veneer and breaking the chain, if able.
Only, that never happens here, and to frame the harsher reality of that, we have an excellent late-album cut in “The Flood” that speaks once again to that generational obligation and only finds an escape in the worst possible way. It’s why I like that, even on the album’s lighter moments, it’s not so much a celebration of the life as it is an appreciation for the few good things it offers: a peaceful sense of quiet, beautiful atmosphere that has its share of dark secrets, and, of course, the people that help one another push on through. Many have already cited “The Air Between” as the big testament to love here, but I’m more inclined to spotlight “Silver Run,” which highlights both partners in that situation on equal footing, because they both understand the weight of that life and know they need to fight together. And though he weaves in the notion that he’ll fly away on “Another Day in the Life,” the subtext suggests that he knows he won’t. But you have to keep hope alive, and you have to appreciate the little moments when you can.
But this is also an album that speaks to maturing all too quickly, and while there’s possible pride felt in doing the right thing on “Coalshooter,” by the time we get to my personal favorite track, “Humble Enough to Hear,” it’s not enough to justify staying. And Chaney grappling with that weight is the key to this album. I haven’t mentioned him much as a vocalist, mostly because I think this album shows signs of an artist still trying to find a more unique tone and phrasing (in other words, it’s there where I get the Childers comparisons), but if there’s a reason that track works well for me, it’s the expressiveness of the hook that lets that frustration loose. Subtle, for sure, but potent all the same.
If there’s a reason this album isn’t quite aiming as high for me as I want it to, though, it’s likely because of the instrumentation and production. Now, don’t get me wrong – the fiddle comes through loud and clear and gives this album its sinister driving backbone on the album’s best moments, particularly in the multiple trade-offs between the acoustics on “Ill Will Creek” and the way it lingers on “Coalshooter.” And that’s balanced out by the warm, playful rollick of the mandolin and acoustics on “Silver Run” to give the album that needed bright moment of levity. I think it’s an issue of consistency and pace for me, especially when there’s several moments here – particularly in the middle – that I wish fleshed out the sound more or took it in more interesting directions than they ultimately do, especially when the opening tracks really nail it. And for as dark as this album gets in its thematic arc, I wish it aimed darker or relied more on minor tones like it does on “Coalshooter,” especially on “Back to Kentucky,” which just sort of plods along.
Even then, there’s an isolated moment in “Wishing Well” that speaks more to social and political commentary and feels pretty scattershot and preachy in its progression, as does “Fever Dream,” albeit to a lesser extent. It’s a long album that often feels like it, and I did find myself often wishing the production had a little more muscle to it to support the content … which is also me being guilty of what I noted in the preamble by comparing it and referring back to similar albums that are a tad sharper. Still, when you’re dealing with a heavy listen like this, I understand taking the minimalist approach, and this album does regain steam with its two ending tracks, especially “The Flood.” Plus, while, again, this is a thematic arc and perspective that’s starting to become more and more familiar in the independent scene, it’s also a needed one that country radio forgot a long time ago. And when the modern outlook frames Mercy with a harsher dose of reality that helps it ring as overall more dark and complex than traditional looks at small town life, it’s absolutely worth a listen.
Favorite tracks: “Humble Enough to Hear,” “Coalshooter,” “Silver Run,” “Ill Will Creek,” “The Flood”
Least favorite track: “Back to Kentucky”