For his debut album, The Man I Once Was, former Day of the Outlaw frontman Stewart Eastham embraced country grit and sweeping balladry to compose a dense and exciting collection of fourteen songs that amount to his “L.A. to Nashville album.” The debut announces the rise of a knockout songwriter with a commanding, yearning voice, dirt under his fingernails, a sensitive, scorched heart, and an ear for turning personal statements into feats of storytelling with considerable gravity and lasting beauty.
With one listen through the album’s first two songs (“Let It Go” and “Born in California”), you’ll notice an impressive duality at the core of Eastham’s music: a shit-kicking bad boy soul with an affinity for Merle Haggard (an admitted lifelong inspiration and influence) and a jaw-dropping finesse for sublimely wrenching balladry that calls to mind vintage Elton John at his most potent (the transcendent power of “Let It Go” and “Idyllwild, CA” will win the tear-stained hearts of anyone who has ever fallen in love with “Tiny Dancer,” “Rocketman” or any other of Elton’s timeless ballads). That Eastham expertly pulls from such lasting and versatile influences time and time again for the entirety of his debut, all the while chiseling out a winning sound that becomes his own, is reason enough to make The Man I Once Was a legitimate contender.
Armed with a crackerjack band of accomplices (John McClung on pedal steel, Ted Russell Kamp on bass, and Eastham’s friend/former band mate Burke Ericson lending a master’s touch as producer, among several others) and using Neil Young’s early-70s classic albums as spiritual guidance, Eastham has put together one hell of a record that deserves a devout following.
Everything Eastham and his players bring to the table soars, but none of it would be half as strong without his voice and knack for lyrics that both cut to the bone and reward the soul. “Let It Go” centers around two emotionally wounded lovers “lying here in each other’s arms,” one pleading with the other to let all the hard times go and “let the past lie in the past.” “Don’t need to criticize / Just live your life / I know you’ve got enough to spare,” Eastham sings, “Take your clothes off / and put your new dress on / We’ll keep on dancing when the music’s gone.”
“Born in California” is a direct telling of how Eastham’s “L.A. to Nashville” record came to be, set to a crisp, chugging musical backbone that sounds like it could’ve come straight out of Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio. Having been born in Northern California, having cut his teeth for a few years in “Hollywoodland” where the town thought Eastham “was a hillbilly’s son” and now residing in Nashville, Eastham adeptly tells the story of being the outcast in whichever setting he sets up shop while always yearning for an out of reach ideal of home.
It’s that theme that surfaces in sublimely melancholic fashion in “Idyllwild, CA,” when Eastham measures the weight of memories for a pristine cabin dreamscape against the loneliness he faces in the wake of a breakup. “Idyllwild, California / is a distant memory / Idyllwild, I once adored you / but I’ll never again see your mountains or your trees / Busted and beguiled / in Idyllwild,” he belts out in the gorgeous chorus, before later unleashing the beating heart of the matter: “Idyllwild, I’ll miss you / so much more than the goddamn girl who broke my heart / in two.” On paper, it reads as angry, bitter and hostile. On record, Eastham injects the lyric with such sadness, anguish, and gusto that it takes your breath away and shows you just how much he loves them both and how untethered he drifts, not being able to call either his home.
Even after all the strengths on display over the first thirteen songs of The Man I Once Was, Eastham switches a gear and unveils the surprise that his chamber isn’t even empty - his most hard-hitting artillery hasn’t even seen daylight until the album’s concluding track and namesake. Over the course of nearly seven minutes, Eastham presents a mythic and harrowing lifetime put to song that channels the finest protest/murder ballads of Steve Earle, Haggard, John Prine and Springsteen’s Nebraska with such precise imagery and tortured showmanship that when he ultimately sings “Please understand, I’m not the man I once was” before screaming out, “I’m not ready to go / I see the devil’s come to take away his own,” you feel the full, finite weight of that life. The album’s final lyrics are words of total resignation (“Now I know, it’s my time to go”), but the whole journey in getting there is a deeply fulfilling, wholly genuine experience that can’t be taken lightly and won’t go out of style.
The Man I Once Was is a very personal debut, and it’s a fiercely relatable record for the types of listeners who gravitate towards certain songwriting and imagery touchstones: wide-eyed wanderers with wheels spinning across American highways, broken-hearted lovers pulling themselves up from their bootstraps, “rockists” with a soft spot for outlaw country, those who gravitate towards genuine emotion over irony, those in search of a bold, powerful voice that can turn heads outside the shamefully processed conventions of hit reality TV talent shows.
Few songwriters arrive on the radar with a musical package this arresting, this confident and true. Stewart Eastham is a rarity, and all the proof you need is in these songs.
Stewart Eastham’s The Man I Once Was is out now (released September 24, 2013) via Long Bar Music. Listen to the album and purchase it through Bandcamp, or visit www.stewarteastham.com for additional information.
*This post first appeared on Division St. Harmony on October 6, 2013.
Justin is a featured contributor to No Depression, and he resides on the outskirts of Indianapolis in Noblesville, Indiana. He writes his own music blog Division St. Harmony (@DivisnStHarmony), has been a senior contributor to The Silver Tongue and Laundromatinee, and has written for Aux.Out. on Consequence of Sound.
Justin has an affinity for writing and music that is both rich in head and heart. Feel free to follow him on Twitter at @clashrebel & @DivisnStHarmony and on Facebook.
Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing!