PLANT A SEED

by Josh Hurst

Or: Southern Family‘s ties that bind.

southernfamily

Southern Family is a patchwork mosaic, epic in its themes and its sense of history but intimate in its detail and its craft; you only see the big picture when you step back to consider the panoramic view. Anderson East’s song “Learning” may be the one that comes closest to presenting the whole album in microcosm, though. The song has regional roots, but isn’t country music per se; it’s sentimental, but also complicated; it is undeniably southern, both in form and inflection, but doesn’t lean on archetypes or make any particular effort to teach the South to non-southerners. As a bonus, it’s groovewise: East rides elastic bass, roiling organ, and punchy bursts of brass for a bit of high-intensity southern soul that could just as easily be topped by Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett, Van Morrison or Ray Lamontagne. The song references George Jones and bait-and-casting, but the concrete particulars are in service of something bigger: It’s a story about fathers and sons, about how “it takes a man to teach a man,” about how the lessons of masculinity are so often passed down without words. But then there’s a twist: When sonny grows up mom and dad find their marriage on the rocks—but the old man’s still teaching lessons in the gracious way he navigates betrayal and divorce. And then he drops the bombshell: He’s still learning to be a man himself, with every day and every struggle. East plays even the most sentimental moments with gravel and grit, and illustrates a lesson he may well have learned from his own father—or perhaps from listening to Waylon Jennings records: You can be tough and you can be emotional at the same time.

This particular patchwork mosaic was stitched together by producer Dave Cobb, an award winner who has been a behind-the-scenes mastermind for Nashville’s country/roots renaissance—a movement of artists in open rebellion against the lifestyle-branding and Top 40 sheen of contemporary country radio, but also against the po-faced severity of so much alt-country. Think artists who convey authenticity without making a big stink about it, who make twang feel like something more than an affectation, who know that rootedness doesn’t preclude melody, spontaneity, or fun. Think Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Miranda Lambert, and Brandy Clark, who are all present here; think Sturgill Simpson, Ashley Monroe, and even the Drive-By Truckers, who might as well be.

But Southern Family exemplifies East’s lesson from “Learning”—that is, it teaches by example. It may be a rallying cry or a galvanizing statement in its form and execution, but not in its content. There are no kiss-offs to country radio here, and no self-satisfied pronouncements of genuineness. Instead, Cobb wisely structures the album as a sly and subtle showcase for the rich diversity of American roots music; the record covers a lot of ground and betrays different schools of song craft in a way that’s sneaky, the full effect not really evident until you make it through the whole record a time or two. A lot of the credit for that has to go to Cobb’s production, which casually unspools symphonic flourishes from John Paul White’s stark and dusty “Simple Song” and follows Miranda Lambert’s light gospel harmonies with the heavy swamp blues of Morgane and Chris Stapleton’s “You Are My Sunshine.” The album’s sequencing is deft: Cobb takes advantage of the various-artist diversity to arrange some killer jukebox moments—listen to how Jamey Johnson’s down-home ballad “Mama’s Table” leads so smoothly into the opening thump of East’s jam—but also to draw thematic connections, as he does with Zac Brown’s “Grandma’s Garden” leading into its conjoined twin, Johnson’s number.

The record isn’t just a master class in flow, though; it’s also rich in themes, and the big one here is family. The songwriters assemble here consider familial bonds through a prism of childhood memories, loss, longing, and reunion. There are songs about betrayal and about death, but they’re all seen through the lens of husbands and wives, fathers and sons, kids and their grandparents. And often, these songs aren’t quite what they seem. Jason Isbell’s song “God is a Working Man”—lighter in its touch than anything he’s done since he was a Drive-by Trucker—is something like a church song fused to a union song, imagining the Almighty as something like a miracle-rendering assembly line worker but then inverting its view to celebrate a southern evangelist whose labors are in love and mercy, passion and non-judgment. Isbell writes the song as a dialogue between a preacher and a thief—shades of “All Along the Watchtower,” perhaps—and makes the song’s family connections palpable: The song becomes a blue-collar spin on the Christian doctrine of vocation, a celebration of the men and women who are doing whatever work they’ve been given. Is that not proof enough that they’re made in God’ image?

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Gospel strains are important here, even if nothing is explicitly religious or liturgical in its content. Miranda Lambert’s song “Sweet By and By” uses southern spirituals as a touchstone, and like Aretha’s Spirit in the Dark (or perhaps the final song from Lambert’s own Platinum) proves that gospel music is just as much about form and feel as religious messaging. There is sanctified steel guitar here, and an atypical tenderness in Lambert’s singing that’s far-removed from “Kerosene” and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; the lyric, like so many others on this record, is Southern not as a pose or a stance but simply as a habit of being, naturally working in references to hunting and fishing and reading the Bible but circling back, again and again, to the importance of family ties: Its exhortation to “plant a seed and watch it grow” may be the key metaphor on a record so concerned with lineage and generations. Its bookend may be East’s more boisterous ode to family bonds, or perhaps Rich Robinson’s closing “The Way Home,” a gathering windstorm of organ and electric guitar that opens up into handclaps, Pentecostal fervor, and down-home spirituality.

Everyone on this album is just on—assuming you’re alright with the Stapletons bringing a decidedly heavy hand to a lightweight folk song—and in its variety and its skillful execution the album has a casual virtuosity: The antithesis of flash, it instead comes from a place where craft is etched out over time, songwriting and performance voices are forged over low-burning embers, and traditions are passed down with real care. It’s an album rich in nifty tricks of songwriting, production, and sequencing— how Brandy Clark’s song is so suggestive of human mortality even in its spare, economical language, metaphor abandoned in place of considered candor, everything about the song betraying both deep emotion but also a distinctly Southern reluctance to reveal too much too soon; how Brown and Johnson work such similar metaphors of family life and toe a similar line of sentimentality but enrich rather than repeat one another, Brown’s more radio-ready sweetness flowing naturally into Johnson’s tender masculinity; how Cobb’s cousin Brent goes full redneck at the beginning of “Down Home” before the song takes off into riotous Dixie Chicken funk. By emphasizing both the diversity and connectivity of these songs, Cobb and the assembled performers create an album that unfolds like a novel but packs plenty of mixtape thrills; Cobb underscores the diversity of this movement, one where there’s room for Holly Williams’ shaggy narratives and kickdrum thump right alongside the Stapletons’ slow blooze and Johnson’s back-porch balladry. Each voice is given plenty of room for distinct expression even while the cumulative effect is complementary, compounding, richly thematic—and thus, an album about family ends up proving its own point.


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