The personal and the philosophical meet in debut album.
Jake Hunsinger and the Rock Bottom Band’s debut album ‘Wrapped Around the Axle’ is described in the release material as representing “three years’ worth of growth as a person pursuing peace of mind”. So there are songs about the usual country themes – heartbreak, the road, and longing (or lust) – but also more introspection and self-examination than in most of the country canon.
The basic quartet of Jake Hunsinger (songwriter, guitar), Andrew Donnelly (guitar, dobro), Jamie Doyle (bass) and Zack Wedge (percussion) is complemented by another four. There is producer/engineer George Dussault (electric guitar, banjo, mandolin), Chris Brooks (pedal steel), Ben Richard (fiddle) and Lauren King (vocals). Together, the eight produce a layered sound that has been described as “Neotraditional Country.” They also have the versatility to match musical style to Hunsinger’s writing.
The vocals are very good. Hunsinger has a great voice for country. Its clarity and depth, along with a bit of twang, fit well with the band’s sound. And pretty much everybody sings, creating tight harmonies, reminiscent of classic hillbilly recordings.
From the beginning you know this isn’t the usual Nashville product. The first song, ‘Siddhartha’, is a jazz style instrumental with a vaguely Eastern sound. It is short – just over a minute – but it sets a tone that unfortunately nothing else on the album refers to or reprises. This reference to the Buddha is followed up by ‘Wild Horses of Wyoming’, a song about eternity with more of country feel where one goes “riding into heaven with the wild, wild horses of Wyoming” to spend “eternity day drinking, and telling dirty jokes to Jesus with John Prine.” All that, having been beckoned along “like an atom in andromeda pulling on the sun.”
This nod to the metaphysical is followed by a paeon to BDSM, ‘Black Eye Shadow Stomp’, with its call to “Step on my neck with yo high heeled shoes, and I’ll write a blank check, and I’ll sing you the blues, oh baby I think I like it, kinky girl now I can’t fight it, do what you want to me.”
The contrast between those first few songs is jarring. The rest of the songs bounce back and forth from the philosophical to the personal. Hunsinger manages to work in both Plato’s cave and his grandmother’s Prius. There are intimate songs of lost love and generational laments referencing the pandemic, student debt and the listlessness of one’s twenties.
These, the songs of a young man exploring his reactions to life’s drama through the lens of country music, make for a somewhat raw but intriguing album. While the music is firmly based on the classic sounds of country, the lyrics are both more personal and more universal than what you get from Nashville. It is good, solid first effort, though not the first attempt to combine self-realisation with popular music. For that you could go to the film Zacharia, the first electric western.