You'll spot John Calvin Abney in a lot of John Moreland performance videos. He's the (much) smaller guy with the guitar or the harmonica or the keyboard, the shaggy-haired, unshaven fellow who looks like he's having a ball there, along for the ride with one of the shooting stars of our kind of music. You also might have caught Abney during his work with folks like Levi Parham, Samantha Crain, Beth Bombara or Chris Porter. Fact is, for all the time he spends as a smaller font feature, it's kind of a wonder he has time to see to his own business.
But John Calvin Abney has been issuing his solo albums reliably since 2015's Better Luck. We've followed his output on R&B through the superb Far Cries and Close Calls (2016) and last year's Coyote. Each incorporates the singer-songwriter roots of his cohorts, while adding a little something the Oklahoma artist has held back from those other collaborations. The same is true for his new project, Safe Passage (Black Mesa, Sept 27).
Whereas most of his work as a producer and sideman falls solidly in the americana bucket, Abney's solo work might be more accurately tagged as indie folk, perhaps with recurring shades of pop or country. For every pedal steel or harmonica, songs like "Kind Days" add keyboards or dreamily sighing vocals. I think I've mentioned Elliott Smith in every one of my John Calvin Abney reviews, and there's nothing to stop me here. Abney's delivery is not a knockoff, but he shares the late artist's proximity to pop, as well as a voice that hits closer to home the more it breaks. "Kind Days" finds him testing the far edges of his range: Bad days are leaving / No use in grieving / Here come those kind days.
Safe Passage encourages listeners to share a positive perspective, or at least to be gentle with ourselves. Even in the wake of the passing of his father while the sessions were being completed, Abney turns his face to the light. On "When the Dark Wind Blows", he counsels: You can't be everything to everyone you know / So give yourself some grace / When those dark winds blow. With its bright harmonica and prominent organ, the song brings to mind The Band's loose amalgam of tangled roots. A multi-instrumentalist himself, Abney is surrounded in the studios by a cohort of friends, including Moreland, Will Johnson, Shonna Tucker and Megan Palmer.
Not all on this new collection is sunshine and flowers. One of the more upbeat tunes, "Days of Disconnect" adds orchestration atop the chimey pop, even as the lyrics threaten to cloud the proceedings: What more could I expect / In your days of disconnect / Camouflage is wearing thin / You want a mirror, not a friend. And a note of melancholy sounds through many of the songs. "Backwards Spring" lazes on a breeze of pedal steel: I've been sleeping in my car / To feel like it did in those days / Is that just the way we are / Or did we let the good get away.
For its studio of stars, Safe Passages is a confidently laidback album, instrumentally solid and capable of delivering a warm musical embrace. "Turn Again" most fully realizes Abney's country leanings, including Megan Palmer's fiddle to great effect: If you find yourself turning / Back to the places you've been / Turn again. "I Just Want To Feel Good" is a barebones voice-and-guitar session, but it speaks volumes and sets the stage for the record's generous spirit. The fingerpicked guitar is elegant, with Abney delivering his lyric like Tallest Man on Earth. A hushed secret shared among friends: I'm here most nights / Singing to make sense / Of the uncertain times / I just sat upon the fence / Singing for green grass and falsehoods / Now I just want to feel good.
- Darrin Bradbury, "Trouble With Time (feat. Margo Price)" Talking Dogs & Atom Bombs (Anti, 19)
- Old Crow Medicine Show, "Louisiana Woman Mississippi Man (feat. Margo Price)" Live at the Ryman (OCMS, Oct 4)
- Highwomen, "If She Ever Leaves Me" Highwomen (Elektra, 19)
- Cody Jinks, "William and Wanda" After the Fire (Late August, Oct 11)
- Jamie Lin Wilson, "Dirty Blonde Hair" Dirty Blonde Hair EP (Wilson, 10)
- Dead South, "Blue Trash" Sugar & Joy (Six Shooter, Oct 11)
^ John Calvin Abney, "I Just Want To Feel Good" Safe Passage (Black Mesa, Sep 27)
- Trigger Hippy, "Strung Out On the Pain" Full Circle & Then Some (Turkey Grass, Oct 11) D
- Wilco, "Everyone Hides" Ode to Joy (dBpm, Oct 4)
- Hiss Golden Messenger, "Bright Direction (You're a Dark Star Now)" Terms of Surrender (Merge, 19)
- Brittany Howard, "Short and Sweet" Jaime (ATO, 19)
- Andrew Combs, "Shipwreck Man" Ideal Man (New West, 19)
- White Stripes, "300mph Torrential Outpour Blues" Icky Thump (Third Man, 07)
- Molly Sarle, "Passenger Side" Karaoke Angel (Partisan, 19)
- Michael Chapman, "Stranger's Map of Texas" Americana I & II (Mooncrest, Sep 27) D
- Chris Knight, "Damn Truth" Almost Daylight (Drifters Church, Oct 11)
- Lera Lynn, "Dark Horse" single (Lera Lynn, 19) D
- Alvin Youngblood Hart, "Amazed 'n Amused" Big Mama's Door (Sony, 96)
- Cody Jinks, "Which One I Feed" The Wanting (Late August, Oct 18) D
- Rachel Harrington, "I Meant To Go To Memphis" Hush the Wild Horses (Harrington, 19) D
- JP Harris, "On the Rebound (feat. Elizabeth Cook)" Why Don't We Duet in the Road (Again) (Demolition & Removal, 19)
- Ruston Kelly, "Teenage Dirtbag (live)" Dirt Emo Vol. 1 (Rounder, Oct 11)
- Star Anna, "Devil Don't Remember My Name" Crooked Path (Local 638, 08)
- Todd Farrell Jr, "Everything Must Go" One Great Tribute: Love Letter To the Weakerthans (One Great Tribute, Nov 25) D
- Vetiver, "Swaying" Up on High (Mama Bird, Nov 1)
- Itasca, "Lily" Spring (Paradise of Bachelors, Nov 1)
- Simon Joyner, "Yellow Jacket Blues" Pocket Moon (Grapefruit, Oct 25)
- Pieta Brown, "Freeway" Freeway (Righteous Babe, 19)
- Alexa Rose, "Last Wildflower" Medicine For Living (Big Legal Mess, Oct 4)
- Dr Dog, "Too Weak to Ramble" B-Room (Anti, 13)
Click over to A Routes & Branches Guide To Feeding Your Monster, and you'll be greeted with a year's worth of quality releases. This week's additions include a new line-up for Trigger Hippy. Their second release, Full Circle and Then Some (Turkey Grass, Oct 11), is still built around the Black Crowes' rhythm section, but instead of Joan Osborne and Jackie Greene, they're joined by Amber Woodhouse and Band of Heathens' Ed Jurdi. Austin Lucas' last studio record was called Immortal Americans. On October 18, Last Chance Records will present No One Is Immortal, a live set by Lucas and The Bold Party. That same day will find David Nail issuing Ghost of Love on Continental Record Service. Roots 'n blues artist Janiva Magness will cover the songs of John Fogerty on Change in the Weather (Blue Elan, Sept 13). And make room for an eclectic tribute to Canada's Weakerthans. One Great Tribute: A Love Letter To the Weakerthans will land on November 15, featuring contributions from Austin Lucas, Have Gun Will Travel, Todd Farrell Jr and more. Your weekly ROUTES-cast awaits: