Inspiration for great music comes from a countless range of sources and for this mighty fine album, Norrie McCulloch, like many other artistes, hit the road in the good ol' US of A, clocking up the miles to find words and melodies.
The Scotsman journeyed with wonder from Austin in Texas to Nashville, Tennessee and what he ended up with was, These Mountain Blues, a glorious follow-up to his shining 2014 release, Old Lovers' Junkyard.
The absorbing collection comes from a trip that also took in a long yearned for pilgrimage to Dido Cemetery in Tarrant County, TX to the graveside of song writer, Townes Van Zandt, whose delicacy and mournfulness is apparent in McCulloch's sensitive and evocative work. During his American sojourn I'm pretty sure McCulloch bumped into Son Volt, Van Morrison and Gurf Morlix along the way.
The gentle, check shirt country swoon on tracks such as the stand-out, gorgeous and intensely sad, New Joke, or When She's Crying Too, lead down a Jay Farrar-type path, while Van the Man is evident on piano-led beauty, Hard To Be The Man You Are Not, with outstanding vocals. The album's cover may feature a guitar, but McCulloch's been bold, experimental even, to change the mood, tone and tempo on These Mountain Blues using lots of piano - on Pass My Door, the outro has Bruce Hornsby all over it - as opposed to more classic country style where pedal steel and guitar form a backbone.
On the beautiful and delicate, When She Is Crying Too, we do get pedal steel and piano as well wafting the song along, like curtains blowing gently in a breeze by a window. There is eye-watering, ice clear piano on The Old Room, which is as heart-tugging a song you're likely to hear all year.
Black Dust, on the other hand, is a haunting acoustic lament for the strife of miners with McCulloch draining the song pit with real regret in his voice.
This latest - surely an early contender for a slot in the 2016 "best of" lists - was recorded to analogue tape over three days behind the doors of The Tollbooth, a 15th century history building in Stirling, Scotland's heritage capital, complete with castle. A trio of Glasgow's most respected musicians - Dave McGowan on upright bass, pedal steel and piano; Stuart Kidd on drums and Marco Rea on piano and bass - decamped eastwards and it proved an inspiring decision to collaborate in this format.
The playing is gentle yet vibrant, sympathetic but with a flow and a swoon to savour as well: a joyous gathering all round of talents determined to buoy McCulloch's vocals, which rarely become dominant, staying more soothing and persuasive, and all the more welcome for that.
It's a terrific album, marvellously crafted in an understated way that lets the work circulate and breathe, effortlessly capturing the listener. That this album deserves a wide audience goes without saying. So here's hoping. In the meantime, the talented Mr McCulloch has already laid down some tracks for his next album - I'm looking forward to it already.
|Various Artists: The Tale Of Ale - Revisited||Iona Lane: Dry Stone Walls|
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