Have you ever had one of those musical experiences where you hear something from right the hell out of nowhere, and it proceeds to blow your mind? Granted, with the way generated hype seemingly evaporates each and every week as new releases emerge and we move on to the next and latest greatest thing, I realize how that question could come across as one asked in vain or scan as empty.
But as far as 2018 is concerned, I mean it when it comes to Dusty Rust and his third album, Stolen Horse. It wasn’t necessarily that it was an unearthed masterpiece I found then – truth be told, it was a record that showed more potential going forward over anything else, and valued more creative high points over straightforward consistency. But it’s those high points that made it all worth one’s while and continues to make it worth the listen today. At the time, my immediate comparison points would have been to, say, early Paul Cauthen or Marty Stuart’s expansive desert-themed album from 2017, Way Out West. But in describing it now … well, think of that album and Rust himself as something of a proto-Orville Peck – an artist able to bring an expansive mix to a cowboy-fueled brand of country music that can call back to an artist like, say, Marty Robbins, or even further back to the cowboy country of the ‘30s and ‘40s without feeling beholden to that past.
And, given that Rust has gotten a bit more creative with all of his follow-up projects scanning all the way back to 2015’s Kansas City Cowboy, you can bet I was interested to hear the next step in Secret Desert, especially with four more years of experience since Stolen Horse backing its release. With that in mind, then, not only does Secret Desert showcase a vast improvement in writing, presentation, and performance across the board, it also marks a great jumping-on point for Rust, even if I’d still say there’s potential for more.
Right away, though, I’d argue the immediate highlight of the album itself is Rust himself. He’s always carried a deep bellow to his delivery that makes those aforementioned comparison points feel all the more appropriate, but there were always slight mixing issues on past projects that made him come across a bit too quiet in the mix. Here, aside from some muddy, sharp blending that I don’t think flatters the duets of “Local Lovely” and “The Lonesome Sound” or the solo “Running Man” particularly well, that’s not an issue. He’s still nestled a tad deeper in the mix than maybe he should be, but in letting the booming echo he reverberates really have the space to breathe, I’d argue the album benefits more because of it anyway. And though the sound certainly isn’t meant to make this sound like a retro-leaning niche project (more on that later), Rust’s full-throated delivery certainly makes these songs feel old and rooted in another time, made all the more clear by the extension of a western-inspired murder ballad in “The Pursuit Pt. 2” carried over from his previous project.
But it’s also rooted in another time in the way these songs feel lonely and carry an isolationist streak to them, which fits the cowboy tradition and allows Rust to stretch out his delivery all the better, especially when I’d argue he’s got the full booming echo needed to fill the space and make this feel like an appropriate soundtrack for a lonesome troubadour’s journey. He always has enough space to command the scene without ever forgetting just how empty and vast that space can be. And if we’re looking for the other highlight of this album, it’d come through in the instrumentation and production, which sounds like the most well-rounded and ambitious-sounding project in Rust’s arsenal to date. Yes, one could argue some of the overall tones feel a bit retro in the sound and era they’re trying to conjure, but when it comes to the overall progression, this isn’t your typical austere brand of cowboy country. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is, but I think it’s an overall combination of rock-solid melodies and well-balanced mixes that can lend this project a greater sense of momentum and heft and contribute well to its pacing with a forward-thinking approach.
Indeed, it’s almost a project I could describe as mood-fueled, if I truly wanted to, and I think that also ties into the writing – probably the one area that I think could push a bit harder, if only because it feels like some of these songs could benefit from a third verse or bridge to tie things together. But it’s also mostly solid for what it is. Yes, it plays to pretty conventional tropes in capturing that wandering cowboy, but the overall loose concept of him searching for a long-lost lover and friend contributes greatly to this project’s sense of dramatic stakes (El Cerrito Place: The Album, in a sense).
And really, between that galloping groove balanced well with the keys and jumpy, frantic bass groove of “Rose Without a Home” that bleeds excellently into the sweeping title track accented by a smoldering middle solo that feels damn-near cathartic, it’s easy to get hooked into this album immediately. It helps that there’s a unique lushness to some of these tones I just love, like the folk-esque rollick in the faint banjo-picking on “Outside Looking In” (even if that melody tilts dangerously close to Tracy Lawrence’s “How a Cowgirl Says Goodbye”), or the enveloping pedal steel licks that continuously crop up on “The Miner.” Indeed, while I’d say the main comparison points come through in those cowboy tales of decades – hell, centuries – past, there’s enough of a subtle warmth and rollick to songs like “The Lonesome Sound” to elicit further ones to ‘70s-era Waylon Jennings with that smoky reverb filling out the mix.
And it’s not even like this album needs to sound lush to hit its mark. I said before that some of the muddy blending stood as a hindrance to certain tracks, but the slow dirge of “Mama’s Letter” feels almost appropriate, given that it shows how a mother’s outlaw son’s tale has ended in tragedy and regret for which there is no going back, made all the more clear by the lumbering riffs of “The Pursuit Pt. 2” that feels nearly like a long-lost folk tale. Granted, it’s also the overall tale on the album itself that I think could have been fleshed out a bit better overall.
The concept here is generally pretty loose overall in its progression – our wandering cowboy is someone we’re made to commiserate with on early tracks like “Rose Without a Home,” the title track, and “Outside Looking In” as he searches in vain of a long-lost friend and lover, which makes the metaphor of mining for, ultimately, nothing on “The Miner” hit very effectively. But there’s a lot of subtle indications that there’s more to him that paints him more as an antihero in search of someone not his, which I think really drives the effective rage and jealousy of eventually killing a cowboy’s wife on “The Pursuit Pt. 2” well and leaves the more well-rounded instrumentation progressions from before feeling more like mind-warps and mental examinations of a character we probably shouldn’t sympathize or empathize with. In between you’ll get more conventional honky-tonk hell-raisers in “Local Lovely” and “Two Timin’ two Step” that I don’t think Rust is as effective at selling, and even an obvious nod to current times in “Quarantine Cowboys” that, while fun and sports a good hook against those old-school strings, does feel a bit out of place as a whole. Again, it just leaves me wondering if that space could have been better used to further flesh out the lonesomeness of this project over the more hell-raising antics that don’t suit it as well.
Still, this is a fantastic listen that may very well stand as Rust’s best project to date, an expansive-sounding nod to the past that nevertheless finds a forward-thinking approach to tell its story and is carried by one hell of a lead singer, to boot. Rust is capable of bringing poise, subtlety, and texture to the table in paying reverence to the cowboy tradition but with a unique presence. And I still think there’s potential for even more, which is why, among other reasons, this album is worth the time and attention.
- Favorite tracks: “Rose Without a Home,” “Welcome to the Secret Desert,” “Outside Looking In,” “The Miner,” “The Lonesome Sound,” “The Pursuit Pt. 2,” “Mama’s Letter”
- Least favorite track: “Local Lovely”