Western Centuries makes country and western music like they used to, but it’s not an exercise in nostalgia. They rock, they roll, they twang and they shuffle. They keep close to their roots and draw from the wide spectrum of the sources of this music – blues, western swing, honky-tonk, Tex-Mex, New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll, and even Cajun music go into their sound. They sing about the typical country-music activities of drinking, smoking and fighting, as well as more existential concerns like the difficulties of love, life on the road, and the passage of time.
Songs From the Deluge is their sophomore full-length release, and with it Western Centuries continues to up the ante on just how good a country band can be in this day and age. For this outing the Seattle band headed to Cajun country in Eunice, Louisiana, to record at Joel Savoy’s Studio SavoyFaire. Savoy co-produced the album with the band and plays fiddle on a couple of tracks. That and the addition of Cajun rockers Roddie Romero on accordion and electric guitar, and Eric Adcock on keys, lend a Louisiana-style danceability to lots of these tracks.
Western Centuries at core is three songwriters and singers who also can play lots of instruments and do it well. There are 12 tracks on this album, and each of the three – Ethan Lawton, Jim Miller and Cahalen Morrison – wrote four songs and sings lead on them.
Drummer and occasional guitarist Ethan Lawton is a Seattle native who’s played mandolin in his own bluegrass band and with Zoe Muth. His contributions tend toward classic country and honky-tonk songs about people pushing life’s envelopes, like the shuffling opener “Far From Home” about a young man who goes off to fight in the Vietnam War to escape an overbearing father, or “Wild You Run” in which the protagonist covers up for a sibling who ends up living on the streets as an addict. Here’s a fine live video of that song, which features Morrison on drums and lots of swell vocal harmonies.
Jim Miller co-founded the bluegrassy jam band Donna the Buffalo, and he’s spent most of his career in and around New York. I hear a lot of classic country-rock in Miller’s songs, which tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves like Gram Parsons’ did, like “Rocks And Flame” about love slipping away, or “Wild Birds,” a metaphor for the traveling life of a musician: “Guide us home on a wing and a prayer / Talk to you later when we land somewhere …”
New Mexico native Cahalen Morrison brings a rootsy background in folk music to the group, with more complicated metaphors and a Southwestern-style wide-open existentialism. His “Earthly Justice” is about a fellow with an anger-management problem, but its chorus returns to repeatedly muse on the potential for “a heavenly trial” coming for those who escape justice’s hand in life. In “Cloud Of Woes” he addresses the idea that you can’t escape who you are just by moving around: “In every nook and every cranny too / Your cloud of woes will always find you.” And he admits that he’s not in control of his own ultimate fate: “It may seem to appear that I’m living the good life / But I can rightly assure this ship don’t go where I steer.”
My favorite Morrison song on Deluge is aptly laden with Biblical themes and imagery. “How Many More Miles To Babylon” comes complete with a chorus full of Job-like questions: “Who holds the faithful departed? / And who shades the light until the dawn?” It also has some of the album finest three-part harmonies on that chorus.
Miller also addresses existential matters on two songs about time. “Borrow Time” is about having to eventually pay the fiddler, and it has a great country-music couplet in the chorus: “Cut your hand on a bottle / Wash the wound with a tear.” And his tender love song “Time Does The Rest” may be the most optimistic on the album with its conclusion that “love prevails.”
Lawton’ has a couple of great songs about drinking, including “Three Swallows” in which the protagonist is a working man who finds himself backsliding into cigarettes and booze as he muses on life’s injustices. And his “Own Private Honky Tonk” is my early favorite on the album. It’s a piano-driven rocker like something by Fats Domino or Jerry Lee Lewis, on a theme that’s familiar from classic country, that of drinking alone. But this one turns the old trope on its head. Instead of drinking by himself in a bar, the protagonist does it at home, where he’s “the bartender and DJ of my own private honky tonk” who likes to “dance across the floor until the neighbors call.” He’s down and out in many ways, working a crappy job such that he can’t even afford to go out and drink, but he still has his fun as a record nerd, staying home and spinning platters alone. It’s a depiction of modern isolation that’s as current and pithy as anything I’ve heard yet, a bleak portrait set to the happiest of danceable rock ‘n’ roll.
Not that you’d mistake Deluge for anything but country. Leo Grassl’s sweet pedal steel is prominent on just about every track, and both Miller and Morrison turn in some solidly twanging electric guitar. Western Centuries is a great country band on record and even better live, where they effortlessly swap leads and instruments and never fail to fill the dance floor. They’re touring the West this month (April 2018) and the East in May, with summer festival dates starting to show up on their website.
(Free Dirt, 2018)