A superb set of modern country songs informed by classic country singer-songwriters.
It’s a rare delight to discover an album from a new name that immediately captures your attention, indeed, grabs it and won’t let go. It happened when this reviewer first heard Ian Noe, and now, a couple of years later it’s happened again. This time around the perpetrator is Nashville based, North Ohio-raised, Austin Stambaugh who has released a glorious album that contains a raft of perfectly realised songs in the tradition of Hank Williams, Townes Van Zandt and even Mike Nesmith.
‘Midwest Supernatural’ is Stambaugh’s first fully fledged band release, his previous releases being, in the main, home-recorded. Here he’s supported by some excellent players, players he met while tending bars in Nashville in fact and who he describes as basically being the house band for Robert’s Western World, Nashville’s famed honky tonk bar and the second home of Joshua Hedley. And, somewhat like Hedley, Stambaugh harks back to classic country sounds although he veers much more to the high lonesome sounds of bluegrass as opposed to Hedley’s Countrypolitan ideal. The album is replete with fiddle, pedal steel, flat top guitar and Dobro, described by Stambaugh as the “strings and guts” of country music.
Stambaugh’s voice is impressive, high and yearning and somewhat akin to a cross between Jimmy Dale Gilmore and Pokey LaFarge. It invests the songs with a riveting sense of wonder, none more so than on the closing number ‘We Live In The Dream We Choose’, a delightful waltz time tune with the ghost of Hank Williams embedded within it as Stambaugh sings of existential angst on a song which is as pertinent to the American frontier as it is to today’s climate crisis.
The album opens with ‘‘Till I Reach Downtown’, a world-weary look forward to having a night on the tiles after a hefty working week and then there’s a rapid comedown on the following weeping lament ‘Ain’t Through Being Lonely Yet’ with the band almost dripping tears in consolation. Stambaugh excels in the soul-searching ‘What It Costs’ where his lyrics have more than a sense of Townes Van Zandt to them and on ‘Let’s be Brothers Here’ he muses quite wonderfully on the divisions thrown up by society on a delightfully laid back Dobro and fiddle inflected number. It’s a close relation to the aforementioned ‘We Live In The Dream We Choose’.
On a more upbeat note there’s the excellent country rock shuffle of ‘Big Engine Blue’ which recalls Mike Nesmith’s First National band, a notion revisited on ‘My Pennsylvania Girl’ which is quite superb with its sublime pedal steel solo. ‘San Marcos Inn’ meanwhile has a darker hue with its bluesy drive and rattlesnake delivery. Finally, Stambaugh offers the listener two songs based on his family history. ‘Final Delivery’, the starkest song here, tells of an exhausted delivery driver who is killed when his van drifts on the highway although there’s a reveal towards the end of the song. It’s a riveting listen. ‘Jim Given Of La Grange’, written about Stambaugh’s grandfather, perfectly captures the tale of a man consumed by his work to the detriment of his family duties, his wife leaving him for his best friend. It’s a glorious, sepia-stained portrait of a family tragedy which closes with Stambaugh vowing not to repeat his grandfather’s mistake. It’s also one of the best songs this reviewer has heard this year and ‘Midwest Supernatural’ is indeed, on track to be uppermost when the end-of-the-year lists start rolling in.