Longtime friends but coming together as songwriters for the first time during lockdown, this debut collaboration (the second this month from Paxton who’s also teamed up with C.Daniel Boling) is, as might be expected, often a response to the world around them as it unfolded, the music ranging from simply folksy strums to more playful arrangements.
It opens with the waltzing topical anthem ‘Ukrainian Now’, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Jon Carroll on leys and Pete Kenny playing electric guitar, written shortly after the invasion as a cry of solidarity, from protesting Muscovites to ballet dancers turned soldiers, with “the Davids against the Goliath, defending their home”. It is, of course, quietly stirring.
Duncan on mandolin and roping in Charlie McCoy on harmonica, ‘This Campfire’ takes on a cowboy feel for another song of community (“You’re welcome round the fire/Come on, we’re making room/Take a seat beside me/I hope you have a tune/We’re passing round the bottle/And this battered old guitar/Everything sounds sweeter/Beneath this prairie star”) and folk joining together in song (“Over there’s a guy named Utah/He’ll sing us songs about Joe Hill/And when Rosie sings she’ll tear your heart out/Always has and always will”).
Carroll on piano with some swing fiddle and string bass, things get jazzier for ‘Do The Work’, the songwriting sentiment summed up in the title (“Just like the carpenter/Sanding on wood/Takes time and sweat/To make anything good”). Which duly leads to the gypsy swing writer’s block of ‘Same Old Crap” (“I’m staring at the page and I got nothing/Not a single chord, and not a rhyme in sight/Not in a fresh idea in view/Not a single word that’s true/I’ll be singing all the same old crap tonight”) which, for performing musicians, takes a somewhat cynical view of their audience (“Why should I worry now/They don’t listen anyhow… So, I guess I’ll give ‘em what they think they need”), though the observation on publishers seems more on the nose (“I took my songs and went on down to Nashville/I went door to door down Music Row/Every place slammed shut/Never scored a cut/All I heard was ‘No, goddam it, no!’”).
Given their backgrounds, social commentary is to be expected. Arranged for piano, bass and fiddle solo, the plaintive ‘Invisible Man’ addresses how we are blind to the suffering and hurt of others, be that the homeless (“When you come to a stop on the street/My eyes are the ones you won’t meet/With my sign, “I haven’t eaten today”/I watch as your car pulls away”) or the workplace drone (“In your office I’m the guy/The one who everyday says “hi”/And every day you nod the same/Ten years and you still don’t know my name”) while , evocative of Stan Rogers, ‘In America’ concerns the immigrant experience through the eyes of a Polish Jew (“I first came to this country/In Spring 1904/A lonely Jew from Warsaw/Never here before/We sailed into the harbour/On the 17th of May/I disembarked with other Poles/Bound for the USA…They checked my mouth, my eyes/They put a chalk mark on my coat/My papers stamped and clear/Was shuffled through an exit/And I suddenly was here… this land of hope and grace”), fast forwarding to WWII (“ my heart was torn apart/With what I heard today/Nazis marching in the street/And fires everywhere”) as “People who look just like me/Are loaded on to trains”, ending with the prescient Trump legacy unspoken question “The lessons are so clear/It cannot be forgotten/It cannot happen here”.
More banal, the spoken, unaccompanied ‘Letters From Joe’ is based on McCutcheon finding a packet of letters while remodelling an old farmhouse, that proved less interesting than he hoped, though given they were letters home from WWII by someone called Joe who never returned, I suppose that depends on the definition of interesting (“’We’re moving out at nine/’I’ll write some more this evening’/That was his final line/I thought of all the letters/That never made it home/And those who waited for them/Those who lived their lives alone”).
Elsewhere, ‘The Fan’ speaks of baseball team devotee (“When the players don’t stay with their home teams no more/Some things just don’t feel the same/But for those of us here in the cheap seats/We’re still holding on hard to the dream”), McCoy on harmonica, ‘Complete’ has Paxton recalling getting sent a copy of Johnny Cash’s ‘American VI: Ain’t No Grave’ and discovering, to his surprise, he’d covered his1964 song ‘Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound’, while, a vocal and banjo solo by McCutcheon, ‘Everything’ is a brief wry riposte to those right win Christians who declare homosexuality a sin, as he looks in the Bible to find what Jesus had to say about it and finds….nothing.
Surprisingly, there’s only two love songs here, the first being the fiddle and piano ‘Life Before You’ and, Paxton on vocals and Carroll on piano, the album title track closer. The two remaining numbers are ‘Prairie Star’ with Paxton, backed by piano and fiddle, singing of a return to simpler times (“now, at last/It’s time to turn myself around/I’ll go West/I’ll leave the rest/Leave these city lights behind/Back to home/My blood and bone/To see how many stars I’ll find”) and ‘Christmas In The Desert’, a fingerpicked rewrite of the Nativity with a truck as opposed to a manger (“She cried and doubled over/It was clear her time had come/No hospital for miles/So, we did what must be done/In the cab of my old pick up/The closest thing to clean/The baby did what babies do”),a perfect companion piece to Reg Meuross’s ‘A Child Was Born in Birmingham’.
Apparently the pair wrote hundreds of songs in the pandemic purple patch, hopefully this album proves to be just the tip of the iceberg.
‘Ukrainian Now’ – official video: