‘When the Well Runs dry’ is the debut album by Jack Marion and the Pearl Snap Prophets. They’re probably new to you (and me) but before we go into detail about them and the record let’s get three things clear: 1. This is a damn fine record. 2. It is not a concept record. 3. It is not a country record. We will get back to these in a moment but first a bit of bio. They were formed in 2017 in the town of Boon, nestled away in the mountains of North Carolina, by chief songwriter Jack Marion (vocals/guitar) along with college buddies and fellow Music Business Majors Chandler Bell (bass), and Marcus Clonts (drums). Since forming, they have added Owen Myers (Lead Guitar) and Matt Guard (Keyboard) and released an EP ‘The Devil and Me’ in 2018.
Many of us will be familiar with their home territory of North Carolina as a breeding ground for Appalachian storytelling in the folk and bluegrass traditions; take Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs and Old Crow Medicine Show as a pretty good trio for starters. These traditions were evident on the Pearl Snap Prophets’ enjoyable but somewhat pedestrian first EP. ‘When the Well Runs Dry’ has upped the ante in any way that matters – energy and songwriting in particular. In terms of style they have strengthened their sound with an unruly, amplified dose of rock n roll salts.
Eighteen months of hard slog playing show after show in clubs and bars across NC has beefed them up no end. This commitment to the time honoured process of honing their craft and building a following shows they are in touch with the virtues and (hopefully) rewards of the hardscrabble life they sing about and has given ‘When the Well Runs Dry’ a real earthy resonance that draws you in to its radio-friendly heart.
There may be a strong and creative gang behind the LP (including ‘joint producers’ Cory Halterman, Jacob Davis Martin, and Chris McGinnis) but there is no denying that Marion is the creative driving force here. His songwriting provides a robust vision of how he sees the world, so much so that there has been talk of this being a concept album. Don’t worry, it isn’t. Whilst there are evident themes recurring throughout: the nature of relationships and family, the dreams of everyday small town life and the uncertainty of an insecure future, these are not formed into a coherent narrative or even placed in a single consistent context. What Marion does, is write about the world as he has come to know it. He lays bare the frustrations, difficulties and pressures of blue collar rural existence in 21st century America, articulating his feelings in a way that resonates with all of us, even if we are not familiar with the context from which they are delivered. Marion is communicating about what is on his mind in the best way he knows how and that is something that pretty much every great songwriter has done through the ages.
The minute of phone messages that begin the record build from simple family affection to a crescendo of white noise, sounding like the weight of the world pressing down on the songwriter and, by extension, the protagonists in the blue collar existence he depicts. So we begin with a clear metaphor for the pressures of this life and these are explored in many different ways throughout the rest of the record. We have the pressures that break the bonds of romantic relationships (‘What a Shame’) that deliver financial hardship upon apparently comfortable couples (‘Ain’t that a Bitch’) or make strangers out of families on the album’s stand-out track ‘Family Funeral’. Here we get a genuinely lovely rumination on the importance, yet fragility, of families and the dangers of letting the pressures of modern life rend them asunder with Marion’s lyrics offering their lightest touch yet: “that’s the thing about the family / we all come together when we need to breathe”. Beautiful, especially when combined with the record’s most purely country arrangement.
These are not the Runyonesque outsiders of Craig Finn but resemble the careworn sorts found in Willy Vlautin’s writing. Marion is communicating universal truths by creating these tiny stories of people struggling through everyday life. We are able to forgive his occasional use of the tropes of struggle – ‘the wolf at the door’, ‘the well that has run dry’ and the ‘head that is barely above water’ – because they are so damn heartfelt; they seem so reflective of his personal struggle, even though he’s barely out of short pants.
The musical setting for all this storytelling may have a country foundation but has built way beyond that. It’s country only as far as the Drive by Truckers, Marah or Lee Baines iii and the Glory Fires. It is just as much an out and out rock ‘n’ roll record; it’s pretty loud, damn catchy and roars through its 32 minutes with the uncompromising swagger of a band on full power. The one slight off-note is a peculiarly ‘desiccated’ drum sound; nothing wrong with the drumming just the brittle noise they make doesn’t quite offer the ballast expected.
If thoughtful and reflective musings on life set to a smartly delivered soundtrack are your thing, this is for you. Then again, if you just like drinking good beer, eating good BBQ and singing the big chorus then you’re at home too. Jack Marion and the Pearl Snap Prophets have got you covered.