John Calvin Abney’s ‘Safe Passage’ Chooses Compassion
You don’t get to play on 29 albums within six years on flash alone. John Calvin Abney’s greatest asset — as a guitarist, singer, and songwriter — is his ability to surrender to the song. It’s what’s paired him with artists as varied as Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires, Porter and the Bluebonnet Rattlesnakes, and fellow Oklahomans M Lockwood Porter, Samantha Crain, and John Moreland. Though Abney’s perfectly capable of guitar pyrotechnics, his solo material favors gentle, contemplative compositions. Safe Passage finds Abney at the crossroads of self-compassion and self-doubt, and his turning toward the former is the central payoff of this album.
Abney’s got a roving creative spirit, and his music has an experimental flair. However, Safe Passage calls to mind his longtime collaborator Moreland. For one, this is the rootsiest Abney has been in a while, thanks to the gentle pedal steel that gives Safe Passage a patient elegance. Abney’s confessional lyrics and blank-verse style also recall Moreland’s soul-bearing. However, Abney guides us to reconciliation rather than heartbreak. On “Turn Again,” he advises us: “Tear down that wall / You placed around your wanton soul / Your borrowed town / You’ll find your song / Out in that country that’s neverending / Just turn again.”
It’s that sense of forgiveness that holds Safe Passage together. The only hint of ego on the whole album is the intricate finger-picking that Abney pairs with his spacious — and spaced-out — singing. Teaming up with former Bluebonnets Will Johnson (Centro-Matic, Monsters of Folk) and Shonna Tucker (Drive-by Truckers), Abney and his band want to invite you into their process. The album’s minimalist sound feels like you can color between the lines to insert images from your own life. Maybe not everyone can relive the glory days of their early 20s by sleeping in their car on tour (as Abney recalls on “Backwards Spring”), but we can all surely resonate with his resolution in “I Just Want to Feel Good”: “[I’m] healing scars I never understood / Now I just want to feel good.”