Just across the river in Kentucky, there used to be a man named Jesse Stuart who spent most of his life in a rural, secluded area of Greenup County. Best known as a writer, he worked as a teacher and school administrator throughout northern Kentucky and Southern Ohio and is well remembered on both sides if the Ohio River as our native contribution to the literary community.
Although he wrote numerous novels and short stories, Stuart's real gift was his poetry. One prominent critic of the day even called him the best American poet since Walt Whitman. Yet he remains relatively unknown, perhaps because he wanted it that way. He wasn't an aggressive self-promoter who spent his time speaking at universities and accepting awards. He mostly just did his thing and occasionally sent a poem or two off to a magazine, letting the chips fall where they may. Then again, his lack of prominence may be due to the fact that the subjects he wrote about- the natural and simple beauties of a rural lifestyle- were considered quaint and old-fashioned even in his day.
I see a lot of Jesse Stuart in Washington songwriter Kevin Brown. While listening to his solo debut The County Primaries, I get a sense that all Brown really wants to do is sing his songs for the people who want to hear them, the people who get them, and has no interest whatsoever in what is going on in Nashville or any other music scene.
Beginning with the cautiously optimistic "Move Away from the Light" and the imagery-laden gospel number "On the Line," the album hooks you in at the outset with it's affable brand of bluegrass-influenced singer-songwriter folk, yet you discover new lyrical depth with each subsequent listen. Take the third track, "Fallow," for instance. On the first listen, it's a great song about hard times on a farm, but later it reveals itself first as a poetic allegory about life itself with a deep spiritual meaning.
Others, such as the sentimental and obviously factual love song "It Was You" and the melodious Old West ballad "Medicine Bow," while not quite as complex are nevertheless beautiful tunes more than worthy of an audience. The real outlier here, though, is the title track, a fun-loving tale of rural life that sounds like Nashville circa 1953. But the common thread through all of the songs is a sense of experience and more than a passing acquaintance with the subjects.
My favorite tracks on the record at the moment are "Courted By Canyons" and "The Last Days of Indian Summer," two bittersweet numbers rife with complexity, yet very different from one another. The first deals with the relationship between man and the creator, while the latter deals with the relationship between man and creation.
Brown's songs details both the beauty and heartache of rural life. Many songwriters claim to do this, but Brown does it with realism instead of stereotypes, conveying the perfect mood through his lyrics as well as the rustic backing. Dobros and fiddles permeate the musical landscape as his lyrics delineate the lives of those of us who prefer to live away from the crowded cities and congested interstates. It's a world where an oak tree is a "backyard homecoming queen." Some may call it backwards, but as Mr. Brown's songs reveal, the true word for it is free.
The County Primaries is easily one of the best debut albums of 2010 and it reveals Brown as a singer-songwriter with an eye for detail, an ear for melody, and the perfect voice to tie it together. Listening to this album, I get the feeling that these are the types of songs Johnny Cash would have loved. Brown has a great talent as a performer and his songwriting skills are unmatched among the new breed of singer-songwriters to emerge over the past few years. Yet neither of those things are what really keeps me coming back to this album. That can only be accomplished by sincerity and heart, two things Brown and his album have plenty of.