Smart Country from Greg Adkins

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Mother knows best. As a narrow-minded teen-ager, I jostled with my mom over the radio dial. If it was country, I didn’t want to touch it, didn’t want to hear it, didn’t want to be associated with it. With a friend in the car, I protested even more vigorously. At the first sign of a musical drawl from Merle Haggard or George Jones, I reached for the dial, in one motion hoping to change the station and avoid my mother’s semi-playful hand slap. With a knowing smile, she always told me, “Someday you’re going to like this music.”

Mother’s intuition gave her the vision to see right through me. As a matter of fact, a few years later, I was hired as the evening disc jockey for Great Country Stereo KSO in Des Moines, Iowa, playing country music for six hours every night.

The thing is, I didn’t really change; at least that’s the logic I used in attempting to save face with mom. Verbally backpedaling, I tried to explain to her that the music embraced by the public and radio as country music is what changed. The late 70s and 80s brought an evolution in country music which sliced the western portion of country/western right off the radio dial, making it palatable to even my image conscious ears. Ironically, some of the artists played on my preferred Top 40 stations in the 70s were artists that were precursors–indeed pioneers–to country rock, country pop, and the modern version of what passes for country today. England Dan and John Ford Coley, The Eagles, Bellamy Brothers, Olivia Newton-John, John Denver, Pure Prairie League, Poco, Neil Young, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Marshall Tucker Band, The Ozark Mountain Daredevils, and Firefall are all examples of 70s and 80s country pop or country rock that today would carry the label country.

When I started playing country music for public consumption, I embraced such artists as Steve Wariner, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Larry Gatlin, Emmylou Harris, Ronnie Milsap, Paul Overstreet, Dan Seals (of England Dan and John Ford Coley fame), and Don Williams, artists that had their formative roots planted firmly in folk, pop, or rock–or on some level–reflected that sound. With egg running down my face, I’m not sure mom bought my explanation–that such artists would have come close to fitting right in to the Top 40 music I favored back in the 70s, when music and program directors favored the song, not some overly homogenized sound. Diversity allowed for a country flavored song to make it on the playlist of Top 40 radio, as long as the artist didn’t have a history as a country artist.

All this noted, because I’m about to recommend a project that must unavoidably and inevitably be classified as country. And if you shun the endorsement based on such a nebulous label, it would be a crying shame. No, Greg Adkins’s Chase the Western Sky doesn’t contain lyrical twists on trains, dogs, prison, momma, pick em’ up trucks or beer, but it’s country nonetheless. And it’s not only the kind of country I embrace, but the kind of country that worms its way into the cranny of my brain responsible for looping songs randomly: when waking, in the shower, at the mall, or at a basketball game. And unlike, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” “Who Let the Dogs Out,” “Achy Breaky Heart,” or “The Meow Mix jingle (Meow meow meow meow, meow meow meow meow…), these are songs I’m truly happy to have occupying my empty head space.

Greg Adkins brings at least two striking characteristics that boost his latest effort above that of many independent artists; his voice and his songwriting. First, the voice. It’s an instrument that belies its age and experience. Velvet soft, it’s a relaxed, mature sound which strikes me as comfortable, even homey. Dan Seals or Steve Wariner might be the beginning of a vocal comparison. If one can discern sincerity, honesty, kindness, and transparency from the color of a human voice, they are all to be found in Greg Adkins vocal timbre.

About the songwriting; one hesitation I have in tagging Adkins collection of songs as country is the misimpression some might have about the songs’ IQ. We know that country can be smart (Lyle Lovett), but it’s probably fair to say that intelligence isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about country music. To the contrary, Greg Adkins is a smart songwriter. He adroitly meshes folk music’s inclination to say something meaningful, maybe even profound, with country music’s honest simplicity. Expressing deep, emotional thoughts in a palatable, accessible way surely takes significant brain power. I’m betting that Adkins can write songs and chew gum at the same time.

The songs from Chase the Western Sky seem to be written with a plan, complete with outline. Like other songwriters I admire, the songs from this project seem determined to take me somewhere. As a listener, I feel the confidence. Many folkish songwriters meander on the path of winding roads which are known to few but the songwriter. I love mystery and ambiguity in song, but want assurance that if searching, I’ll find something beneath the musical riddle. I don’t want to invest time if there isn’t something like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. There are too many musical choices to spend inordinate time listening to a songwriter chase the tail of his own confusion (that’s confusion as a songwriter, not confusion about life, which we all share sometimes). Clarity. That might be the right word. The songs on this collection make sense. As narratives and emotionally, they resonate. They are simple, but not simple minded. They are clean and lucid, not pretentious and cluttered.

Indian filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan has become known for narrative twists that are both surprising and satisfying, which isn’t easy. Some endings are surprising, but hokey. Some are satisfying, but not surprising; we see them coming from the concession stand. Adkins swiped a page from the Shyamalan playbook with songs like “On the Train Back Home” and “The End of You and Me,” which are unexpected and agreeable. With such an ending, I’m not just joyful; I’m joyfully moved. “The End of You and Me” is a song which takes a lump in the throat twist which won’t be revealed here. It’s so good that to reveal it would be to deprive you of experiencing the wonder of hearing it yourself. Like a telephoto lens slowly twisted into focus, each line reveals a little more of the puzzle. Soon the listener realizes that his first impression was quite mistaken, but in a good way. At once, the denouement is satisfying and fulfilling, lending perspective and meaning to the song that is far more eloquent and consequential than one might have imagined from his first impression.

With superb vision, the musically lighthearted “Someday” anticipates the growth and development of a baby boy. With a distinctive harmonica introduction, the lyrics compare and contrast the questions of a boy and his father. I’ve always believed that art which effectively compresses the emotion of many years into one moment–a two hour movie, beautiful oil painting, short poem, or three minute song–is potent, concentrated medicine. Done well, such a song harvests years of emotion as if were being squeezed from a family photo album. Hearing such work, one is prone to flashes of emotion which can leave even the most hardened man wailing like a baby. Only the carefree melody of this song keeps it from being such a full blown weeper.

“Further Up and Further In” is Adkins’s obvious nod to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and might be the least country of all the songs on the album. In another era, “Old Radio”–given aggressive record label promotion–could have been a hit record on mainstream country radio. “My Own Worst Enemy” is confessional in nature with the kind of personal candor that would make most of us squirm. The only cover is Julie Miller’s “By Way of Sorrow.” My friend Sharon says that literally every song on this project is good. Though it’s rare to find such a CD, I’m right with Sharon on that point. It’s the kind of disc in which skipping songs rarely happens. Every song is standout good.

Adkins doesn’t seem to mind experimenting with a variety of musical flavors. Besides an array of the usual guitars and pianos, producer Chris Rosser recruited players sporting fiddle, upright bass, harmonica, dobro, banjo, glockenspiel, tambourine and a range of other unconventional percussion and instruments that might be found at a bluegrass festival or Fan Fair (known now as the CMA Music Festival).

There exist a number of Christian artists that paved the way for an album such as Chase the Western Sky. And though it’s an effort that comes early in the career of Greg Adkins, its quality is on par with many of those that preceded it. Some are known, some are not. Some lean closer to folk, others closer to country: Ron David Moore, Paul Overstreet, Bruce Carroll, Dave Potts (who sings harmony on several Chase the Western Sky cuts and toured briefly with Adkins), Lenny LeBlanc (in pre-Christian days, the late 70s, had a Top 40 hit called “Falling” with partner Pete Carr), Brian Barrett, Buddy Greene, Dan Seals, Love Song, The Way, Dogwood (not the 90s punk-rock outfit), and let’s be honest–at times, Caedmon’s Call, Mark Heard, and Andrew Peterson (2004 Peterson’s song “Family Man”, from the album Love and Thunder, was nominated in the category “Country Recorded Song of the Year” for the 35th Annual Dove Awards).

Over the last twenty years, I’ve personally collected music from all of these artists, including the music of Greg Adkins. It’s a definite niche. To one extent or another, they play and sing country music. And I like it. I like it a lot. Maybe. But if you see my mom, let’s keep that between us.


10 Comments

  1. Rob

    I’m thrilled to see this review make it to The Rabbit Room! This album is easily one of my top five from last year (right up there with ‘Recovery’ and ‘The Ringing Bell’). I don’t have enough good things to say about it.

    Even though Greg isn’t a contributor to this blog, this record should be a permanent addition to the Rabbit Room store. Any chance that would be a possibility?

  2. Shawn

    I have a similar prejudice against country music, but I have appreciated this album. I agree that Greg is a great songwriter who deserves to be heard.

    Having loved the Chronicles of Narnia, Further Up and Further In is definitely my favorite song on this album.

  3. Tom Bubb

    Thanks for this post Curt! I love it when The Rabbit Room clues me in to cool music! I will check this one out for sure.

  4. Margaret Adkins

    Thank you so much for writing what I have always believed to be true! Greg Adkins is my son and I am very proud! He is a brilliant guy who is determined to be the best father and husband in the whole wide world and I believe he is succeeding. Thank you for this website and your writing. Love, Margaret

  5. Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    As always, your feedback is appreciated. Thanks so much.

    Eliza – Greg seems like a very cool guy. I haven’t met him in person, but hope our paths cross someday.

    Rob – Thanks for the validation, Rob. When writing reviews, one never knows to what extent his own perceptions match those of his readers. I appreciate your perspective.

    Shawn – So is it safe to say that you don’t have any Moe Bandy in your music collection? 🙂 In all fairness, Greg’s music as heard in this CD is better defined as Americana, but when I started playing country music, I’m not so sure the term Americana was around. Too, I like the stark reactions I get when I used the term country. I love “Further Up and Further In too!” Specifically, it comes from The Last Battle. The instrumentation, specifically the contributions of River Guerguerian’s percussion elements and guitars from Andrew Osenga and Chris Rosser create an amazing place in which to place Greg’s lyrics.

    Tom Bubb – I hope you enjoy Greg’s work. If you type “Greg Adkins” into Google, his website will be one of the first choices. I also own Lower Than the Angels, which is excellent, but not as good as Chase the Western Sky. Greg has a few other projects too, which I look forward to adding to my collection down the road.

    Margaret – The mom. How great to hear from the mom! You should be more than proud. Thanks for coming by.

    Arthur – Thanks for the post, Arthur. Readers should know that you have your own highly acclaimed project, Under the Gray. Thanks for supporting great art and your friend Greg.

  6. Marcus Fife

    I’ll be honest, I used to have a huge cringe factor when I heard most country music songs, but like the review says, there is a brilliant sense of honesty to Greg’s music. When I started practicing with him to play a couple of shows, I started to think “uh oh, this is borderline country!” After playing those songs though, and hearing the way he crafts the lyrics, my wife and I both fell completely in love with Greg’s songwriting…He won me over to being a country music fan. Ugh. What is it with this guy!
    By the way, old radio is my wife’s and my favorite song by far. Pick the cd up today if you haven’t already.

  7. Tom Bubb

    Thanks for the reply and the information Curt! I ordered Chase the Western Sky shortly after I read your review and I’m looking forward to enjoying it soon.

  8. Sharon

    Curt ~ what a well-written, insightful review! I’m so happy that Greg is getting this plug. My daughter Kathy said (and I thoroughly agree) that this CD is a masterpiece.

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