Based in Edinburgh, but the album recorded in Austin with session players who’ve worked with the likes of Dylan, Cash, Willie and Jackson, Lightning In The Dark is Fairnie’s sixth solo album, largely written with Bob Shiels and which produced what Merel Bregante describes as Celticana with its mix of Americana and Scottish influences.
The songs dating back to 2001 with the latest written in 2018, it opens with the jaunty back beat shuffling musing on love and life that is ‘Isn’t That The Way’, his seasoned croaky vocals backed by Dobro, mandolin, whistles and a pipes outro, and with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s John McEuen on banjo, slowing the pace down for ‘If You Go West’, here featuring cello, and another love song about travelling life’s roads together.
A folksier air informs the gathering pace fingerpicked ‘Sleeping On The Streets Of New Orleans’, the narrative of people made homeless by Hurricane Katrina, ignored by the powers that be, the same dusty mood gathering around the cello-adorned ‘No One Knows The Night’, a sketch of two lovers on a dry road through Mexico, sleeping under stars where “the breath of night was smoke and pine” and is probably the first songs to use the word propinquity since Mike Nesmith took it as a title five decades ago.
Driven by fiddle and banjo, the bluegrassy title track is in the classic tradition of country crime of passion murder ballads, the narrator having “the finest shoes walking on Death Row” after killing someone in a drunken fit of jealousy over “a dancehall diamond built to lie”, but going to the gallows with no regrets, while Dave Pearlman’s Dobro is back in evidence for ‘The Only Things I Ever Cried’ (“Where did those old times go?/Well I don’t know but they’re hard to live without/And I’d do anything/Just to have them back”) again with Sarah Pierce on harmonies and a touch of Guy Clark dry Americana rust to the voice.
Cody Braun’s mandolin brings a desert Texan border air to ‘Better Times’, a nostalgic reminiscence the Depression and riding the boxcars and how “When you heard that whistle blowing/She was coming to a bend/The train would get to slowing/And you could help some other friend/And you could treat him like a brother/You could share the bread and the wine”. I think the contrast of eras is fairly implicit. Perhaps it leads logically into ‘Give Me The Good Times’, a song he describes as “about the way we seek to justify and legislate for our base desires, like greed. It can be argued that all land is theft. The frontier spirit has been used as an excuse for so many wrongs”, a slow cocktail of Clark, Kristofferson and Nelson as he sings how “Every piece of land came from killin’/The sons of Cain inherit the earth” but that “You can’t grow gold; can’t sow silver/A drop of rain is the only thing/You can’t hold water in your fingers/Slips away like a dime store ring”.
The tempo and mood get lighter for ‘Lightning All Over Sunnyland’, mandolin and Dobro in partnership with harmonica for a track that basically runs through a check list of blues legends names, from Robert Johnson, Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters to Gary Davies, John Lee Hooker and Bessie Smith. Lightning being, of course Hopkins.
Another fingerpicked acoustic track, ‘A Quiet Life’ is another story song, here of a saloon populated by hearts and minds broken by love, of a man who looking for trouble to ease the hurt, “who took a bottle to the juke box”, the band behind the chicken wire singing ‘I Ain’t Ever Satisfied’ while he’s “looking for A Satisfied Mind”, a cold memory stirred by a blood red dress. As he wryly says, “if you can’t find trouble in a bar like that/You ain’t looking hard enough”.
McEuen back on banjo, the penultimate track, ‘Winter Of ’72’ is another murder ballad (“Big Lake was frozen over/With ice as deep as sin/Now sleeping there’s a maiden/And a cold; cold heart within”), albeit one with jaunty front porch bounce that again brings the early Guy Clark to mind though the style stretches back to Cash and Tex Ritter. It ends with the near six-minute fingerpicked, cello-accompanied ‘Liberty’, a bruised love song to America, “a land with no history/No magic, no mythology”, a song that “contrasts the dangers of nationalism with the longing for freedom and independence” as the organ kicks in and the sound briefly swells on the refrain as he sings “If you could be anything for me/Be my liberty”. I have to admit, I’ve never come across Fairnie before, but this has definitely earned a place on my albums of 2020 list.
Artist’s website: www.tomfairnie.com
‘Sleeping On The Streets Of New Orleans’ – official video: