Here’s a fun question: How many ways can you define Texas country music? And how many ways can you split those definitions down even further to draw parallels to one another?
Because for a regional scene with a historic sense of pride in what it means to be a Texan artist, wading into the wrong waters can prove costly. For one, there’s the difference between Red Dirt and Texas music that has always caused headaches and won’t be explored here. But trace those roots back even further and there’s another interesting parallel that only rarely gets discussed. I’m talking, of course, about the outlaw movement and how acts like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings found their footing in their home state before trying (and succeeding) to change Nashville for the better, but there was also another class that didn’t really have their eyes set on Nashville or commercial success in general. For as much as acts like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark receive their wider due attention and respect today, things were different then without the widespread connections available to help spread the word about the simple poetry these acts were making; it was all for the sake of the song, you could say. It wasn’t music meant for dancehalls or for raising hell on a Saturday night, it was simple music meant to captivate listeners.
Of course, history moves on and the lines get blurred, as they always do. Clark mentors a young upstart by the name of Rodney Crowell who works with acts like former folkie Emmylou Harris and bluegrass musician Ricky Skaggs before finding unexpected solo success in Nashville, all while finding success behind the scenes as a producer and songwriter. And since this is the thread that I think has gotten slightly muddied and lost over the years outside of, say, Courtney Patton, Jason Eady, Jack Ingram, and Jamie Lin Wilson in the modern era, I have to say I was surprised Crowell’s involvement in the making of Vincent Neil Emerson’s self-titled sophomore album. For context, Emerson released a fairly low-key debut album in 2019 that owed more to Willie Nelson’s looser, ragged style than it did anyone else. And I wish I could say it worked for me as well as I wanted it to – it was mostly an issue of being too indebted to the influence and not offering a lot of variety or personality otherwise to make up for it. I knew about it, but I didn’t cover it, and I wish I had. If there’s a way he blew up, though, it was from an endorsement from actor Jason Momoa, who also helped boost Colter Wall to further prominence as well as Ian Noe, and, oh, how I can’t wait for that guy’s next album. And with this album’s lead single turning in a much darker, more personal direction for Emerson … well, I didn’t know what to expect. But it was a huge step in the presentation and writing, and with the critical acclaim already behind this, I had hopes for something special.
I’m happy to report, then, that Vincent Neil Emerson’s sophomore release is indeed a huge step up from his debut, fostering the same spare, loose style, for sure, but in a way that complements writing that’s far darker and introspective than before. Of course, that right there always leads to the inevitable criticism with these kind of albums that it’s too spare or dark to hold attention for a long duration, and while this album goes down fairly quickly, I won’t quite call it one of the absolute best of the year for me. Still, just on writing alone, this is absolutely worth hearing, and an excellent introduction into Emerson’s work.
Before digging into the heart of the album through the content, I want to address the instrumentation and production. Again, if you’re aware of the influences, you’ll know what to expect: plenty of warm, well-balanced acoustics at the front of the mix, organ in the low end to offer a greater sense of swell, and some beautifully liquid fiddle work that snakes its way through on both the somber and few upbeat cuts – again, just on a basic level. What caught me off guard was the usage of flute to cut through that starkly lonesome echo to great effect on tracks like “The Ballad of Choctaw-Apache” and the pub-esque “White Horse Saloon,” especially with the Gaelic touches that come through excellently. And I don’t want to discount the accordion on tracks like “Texas Moon” or “Ripplin’ and Wild” to give this album some drive when it needs it. Of course, that brings me to my first criticism, in that for as solid as it all is on a compositional level, I did wish for greater dynamics within to strengthen the work – less can be more, after all. It’s why I love the jazz-like, dreamy, damn-near ambient atmosphere given off by the opening piano chords on “Learnin’ to Drown” to offer something light and meditative for what’s ahead, especially when they return to lead the song out and help that hard hit land with a bit of softer blow. Or take the minor chords and thicker acoustic strumming of “The Ballad of Choctaw Apache” that both only seem to intensify as the song progresses to offer that bitter payoff it so richly deserves. Even in more subtler terms, I like the way the organ swells up before the hook of “High on Gettin’ By” to add more urgency to the delivery, and of the few looser drinking songs here, “White Horse Saloon” is easily my favorite for the looser progression caught between somber and chipper.
On the other hand, the general lack of variety in tempo can make this album start to run together fairly quickly, particularly in the first half with songs like “Debtor’s Blues” and “Ripplin’ and Wild” that both sound nice but also meander and get repetitive when addressing the content itself. The latter track is a drinking song meant to act as Emerson giving in to his vices yet again, and yet the chipper waltz vibe just seems like the wrong fit for it. And for as much as I like the gentle, liquid, delicate touches added to “Durango” as a redemptive “coming home” moment, I did wish for a better progression or payoff from it, too. The oddly clumsy western-swing influenced “Saddled Up and Tamed” also feels like a strange way to close out the album compared to “High on Gettin’ By” just before it.
Of course, that’s a good segue into Emerson himself, and while I don’t honestly detect a lot of rich character in his voice, I do think he’s mostly serviceable for the material. Again, part of my issues with his debut was that he couldn’t loosen up on what was mostly lighter material, and while I don’t think he sells the lovestruck platitudes of “Saddled Up and Tamed” all that well, he can sell shit-kicking self-deprecation weirdly well on “High on the Mountain,” and sell misery coated in bliss on “White Horse Saloon.” When the dramatic stakes are higher, Emerson shines, and it’s why I love the anger and intensity he’s able to continuously convey on “The Ballad of the Choctaw-Apache,” especially when he can sing it from a place of authority. And for as damn gutting as tracks like “Learnin’ to Drown” and “High on Gettin’ By” are, it’s telling that there’s a greater sense of urgency conveyed in wanting to escape those ruts.
Granted, this would also be a good time to address the content I’ve been dancing around up until now. And on the note of the lyrics and themes, this album offers a greater insight into who Emerson is both as a person and artist, even if the writing intentionally never aims to get autobiographical outside of a few moments. I mean, “Learnin’ to Drown” is somewhat of a thesis statement for this album – in which Emerson relives his father’s suicide and the mental toll it takes on the people still here, including Emerson himself, who believes he’s destined for the same fate. What I found further compelling was the solution, presented somewhat as metatext in resorting to music for answers and healing. Only, on tracks like “Texas Moon” and “Debtor’s Blues,” he can’t help but also look at music sometimes as just another means to an end to find deeper meaning and fulfillment that’s harder to find when it becomes a job and something he needs to do just to survive and make it, rather than rely on purely as a crutch on the side. He doesn’t want it to be that way and tries elsewhere to rise above it, but it’s a different and honest way of looking at it that gives this album an interesting arc. On the note of the latter track, the good times he mostly had and explored on that debut came with a heavy cost, and this album is mainly about Emerson breaking the chain so that history doesn’t repeat itself.
Now, that’s mostly framed in a series of “coming home” moments and drinking songs that find Emerson falling back into old habits, and while there are standouts in that lane, this album does feel like it’s missing the greater details of framing that redemptive arc. “High on Gettin’ By” is a fantastic moment late in the album that finds him ready to cross that line before considering his future and the people – the other victims – he’d leave behind should he go ahead with it, and it’s a heartbreaking, sobering way to tie it all together. And though it’s separate from the main arc, “The Ballad of the Choctaw-Apache” is an absolute standout, a song about the flooding of Native-American lands for a reservoir that still carries the air of defeat lingering throughout this album without being confined by it. The only thing left to do may be to offer righteous anger at what’s been done, but it’s a gripping moment and story song.
Which is also to say that this is not an album looking to make it easy on the listener lyrically or sonically. Emerson is such a talented writer, though, that it’s enough to make for an emotional roller coaster worth trying regardless, especially when I do think the general production is more tasteful and varied than it’s been given credit for, even if there could have been more done to really slam it out of the park. Still, this is an album that needs to be rough around the edges in order to learn the lessons that Emerson delivers, and while I’ve long been of the opinion that devastating circumstances should never be a requirement in assessing great art, sometimes those demons speak for themselves.
- Favorite tracks: “Learnin’ to Drown,” “The Ballad of the Choctaw-Apache,” “High on Gettin’ By,” “White Horse Saloon,” “High on the Mountain’
- Least favorite track: “Saddled Up and Tamed”