Reckless Kelly covers expansive territory on two new albums, American Jackpot and American Girls, both released this Friday.
Founded by Willy Braun and his brother Cody Braun in 1996, Reckless Kelly has migrated from its Idaho roots to Austin, Texas, to create their follow-up to 2016’s Sunset Motel. What started as a singular album evolved into a pair after Willy Braun realized he’d written and accumulated enough material for a 20-song collection that explores America’s vast culture.
American Jackpot opens with the introspective “North American Jackpot,” a tribute to the immigrants who have voyaged to America, from the pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower to form a new world to the modern-day migrants seeking a new beginning for their families and themselves. The group interweaves Emma Lazarus’ 1883 poem “The New Colossus” with their own perspective, making reference to her work inspired by the Statue of Liberty with such lines as “send your tired, your huddled masses / send the homeless and the poor / with open arms she offers all this new world can afford,” while pledging their allegiance as they sing “we hit the jackpot … we were born in North America in the 20th century.”
A distinct element across both projects is the band’s masterful ability to capture the beauty of the American terrain in the lyrics that help guide the stories along. This gift arises in “Thinkin’ ’Bout You All Night” as Willy Braun paints an image of the scenic Beltane Ranch in Sonoma Valley, California, and gazes at the mystic fog over the rolling hills in the distance as the memory of the person he misses most crosses his mind. He then takes listeners along for the drive over the snowy trail creek where he learned of Tom Petty’s passing on “Tom Was a Friend of Mine.” Using such potent words as “then silence filled the air like there would never be another sound again” to convey his sorrow, Braun compares Petty’s music to sitting down with an old friend for honest conversation.
The Grammy-winning band continues to praise its heroes with “42,” an homage to Jackie Robinson. Co-written by Braun and his father, Muzzie Braun, the song honors Robinson’s groundbreaking role not only in baseball, but society at large. Named for Robinson’s famed jersey number, the song recounts childhood memories of playing the beloved game with friends while reflecting on Robinson’s resilience and grit that paved the way for his legacy: “There ain’t nothing I can’t do / just like 42.” While the band recognizes those who move the culture forward, they also celebrate the profound characters we encounter in everyday life with “Grandpa Was a Jack of All Trades,” which pays tribute to a family patriarch who survived Pearl Harbor and helps his neighbors in need.
Across American Jackpot and American Girls, the band also explores heartbreak, introducing listeners to the “bad girl” from Phantom Ranch in the rollicking “Mona” and the one-night lover the leading man can’t forget, “Miss Marissa.” But Reckless Kelly puts forth a different kind of heartache on “Put on Your Brave Face Mary,” shining a spotlight on the plight of veterans. The song depicts the wife of a wounded veteran who can’t get the support he needs after returning home from war. Creating a tale about an unwavering woman who wears her own sort of armor, the band dishes out a dose of harsh truth as they proclaim, “$700 billion is somehow not enough to go around / so the price we pay are the 22 a day committed to the ground.”
The albums also explore the other side of heartbreak — the healing — on songs like “All Over Again” and “Lonesome on My Own,” and even find their way to fun again on “Anyplace That’s Wild,” a duet with Suzy Bogguss that follows a couple with a thirst for adventure and thrill, set to the tune of a stomping, Western-like melody heavy on harmonica. It’s followed by the lively “Lost Inside the Groove” that’s begging to be played in a country dancehall.
The touchstone of home appears throughout both projects. American Jackpot concludes with “Goodbye Colorado,” a story song told from the perspective of an immigrant who’s exiled back to their native land, bidding a fond farewell to the country they made their home. And American Girls closes with the stoic and ceremonial “My Home is Where Your Heart Is,” one of the album’s most reflective numbers that’s like poetry set to music, anchored with a violin that carries the melody. “We’ll never be the lonely ones / no matter what we find / we’ll make it yours and mine / with roof and dreams and windows of moonlight / as long as we’re together, as long as there’s forever / my home is where your heart is tonight,” Braun sings.
Through American Jackpot and American Girls, Reckless Kelly offers an all-encompassing look at the American way of life and the heartbreak, beauty, and love it entails, all shining through in their own unique ways. By portraying characters who embody strength and resilience, Reckless Kelly reflects the people from all walks of life who are the beating heart of America.