Saturday, April 22, 2017
ROUTES & BRANCHES
featuring the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music
April 20, 2017
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust
The story behind Matt Urmy's Out of the Ashes is one for the ages. How a young songwriter struck up a friendship with Cowboy Jack Clement, and how that led to sessions at Clement's home studio, which caught fire and it was thought all was lost. Then lo and behold the basic tapes were salvaged and the record became one of Cowboy Jack's final projects. And you can find that almost anywhere online, told prettier than I can tell it here. But I wouldn't be caring much about Matt Urmy's story if it didn't lead to some really good music.
I've bemoaned at least a couple times here on R&B how legendary artists earn a pass for their late career music that probably wouldn't make it to vinyl if it were made by an unknown. So the fact that Out of the Ashes bears the imprimatur of Mr Clement, and that John Prine adds his weathered voice to the mix is great. But I wouldn't be paying attention if it weren't for Matt Urmy's way with a song and a lyric.
Call Matt Urmy a renaissance guy if you like, one of those multi-talented savants who arrives with a comet tail of fascinating day jobs, who has developed a career management software for artists, who has published poetry and been praised for all of the above. Matter of fact (back to our story) Urmy had largely written off those music tapes when a call arrived a year later informing him that the stuff had been salvaged. Even then, he was apparently so busy with his other work that it took him a spell to get back to Cowboy Jack's rebuilt place to see his music to completion. And it's all about that music.
I read how Clement remarked that Urmy really couldn't sing, but that he likened the young man's writing to Kristofferson. Like Sam Baker, Matt Urmy is more about the delivery than the tune, and Urmy's sense of rhythm and rhyme speak to his prowess as a poet. Take "I'm Gone" for example. The tune stars a wheezy accordion, in service of some wise stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Cast a lasso into the song, and you'll draw back at least a line or two that any writer would be proud to call their own: I go to the river late at night / And shoot my prayers like bottle rockets, straight at the lights.
Urmy's lyrics are wise a'la Prine, shot thru with barbed humor and a take on life that's decidedly left of center. Songs like "Renaissance Rodeo" might yield just as much reward read as poetry: So think about Emily Dickinson's style / She stayed at home / Wore that white dress all alone / And sewed every poem up in a little envelope / And kept them beneath her mattress / Just for the ghosts.
But it's true that the songs on Ashes do function just fine as songs. Urmy has enlisted a masterful company of players to serve him, with names like Kenny Vaughan, Tom Pryor or vocalist Leticia Wolf on the guest list. "Easy Train" and "Have You Seen the Time" are slower paced, gently thoughtful pieces with a sure sense of musicality. The former is a lazy lope, trailing pedal steel in its wake a'la Mark Knopfler or JJ Cale. Urmy's songs can so readily relax into a steady, satisfying pocket, as loose as a belt after Thanksgiving dinner. He can slide between his croon and his patter, even within a song. And no matter Clement's judgment, he's a fine vocalist whose tone settles somewhere between Dave Alvin or Tom Russell's folky delivery. When you're waking up / Take it real real slow / Put your hands in the air / Bow your head down low, and say / Let it roll, just let it roll.
Which isn't to say that it's not supported by a great story. Or that Cowboy Jack's production and John Prine's presence don't add weight to the record. Because it is, and they do. But imagine being handed an unlabeled file, then hearing the music sans story. Matt Urmy is a unique artist, and we're lucky that Out of the Ashes was dusted off and finished if for no other reason than that it's simply great music.
Also on this Episode, we "Adopt a Highway" with the Harmed Brothers. And we could certainly do worse than new records by Deslondes, Vandoliers and Chris Stapleton, no? Plus, I believe there's one point in the 'cast when you can hear my wife talking upstairs. Now that's Broadcast Excellence!
- White Buffalo, "Joe & Jolene" Shadows Greys & Evil Ways (Unison, 13)
- Craig Finn, "Jester & June" We All Want the Same Things (Partisan, 17)
- Joseph Huber, "Playground/Battlefield" Suffering Stage (Huber, 17)
- .357 String Band, "Long Put Down That Gospel" Fire & Hail (357, 08)
- Bruce Robison, "Sweet Dreams" Back Porch Band (Motel Time, 17)
- Lillie Mae, "Honky Tonks & Taverns" Forever and Then Some (Third Man, 17) D
- Andrew Combs, "Heart of Wonder" Canyons of My Mind (New West, 17)
- Jayhawks, "Angelyne" Rainy Day Music (American, 03)
- Jeff Tweedy, "Laminated Cat" Together At Last (dBPM, 17) D
- Jade Jackson, "Good Time Gone" Gilded (ATO, 17)
- Old Crow Medicine Show, "Rainy Day Women (live)" 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde (OCMS, 17) D
- Rodney Crowell, "East Houston Blues" Close Ties (New West, 17)
- Magnolia Electric Co, "Don't This Look Like the Dark" Sojourner (Secretly Canadian, 07)
- Weeks, "Bottle Rocket" Easy (Lightning Rod, 17)
- Two Tons of Steel, "Shoulda Known Better" Gone (Big Bellied, 17)
- Harmed Brothers, "Adopt a Highway" Harmed Brothers (Fluff & Gravy, 17) D
- Deslondes, "Muddy Water" Hurry Home (New West, 17) D
- Cory Branan, "Wall, MS" Adios (Bloodshot, 17)
- Left Lane Cruiser, "Booga Chaka" Claw Machine Wizard (Alive Naturalsound, 17)
- Mic Harrison & High Score, "Indiana Drag Race" Vanishing South (Mic, 17)
- Vandoliers, "Rolling Out" the Native (State Fair, 17) D
- Hackensaw Boys, "Parking Lot Song" Love What You Do (Nettwerk, 05)
- Whiskey Gentry, "Seven Year Ache" Dead Ringer (Pitch-a-Tent, 17)
- Chris Stapleton, "Broken Halos" From a Room: Vol 1 (Mercury, 17) D
- Steel Woods, "Better in the Fall" Straw in the Wind (Woods, 17) D
- Justin Townes Earle, "Faded Valentine" Kids in the Street (New West, 17)
- Los Straitjackets, "You Inspire Me" What's So Funny About Peace Love and Los Straitjackets (Yep Roc, 17)
- Blackfoot Gypsies, "Potatoes & Whiskey" To the Top (Plowboy, 17)
- Marty Stuart, "Time Don't Wait" Way Out West (Superlatone, 17)
- Graham Parker, "Cheap Chipped Black Nails" Deepcut to Nowhere (Razor & Tie, 01)