With his debut album, indie country artist Jason Wickens is attempting something that has proven a tricky for many a talent before him: launching a career as a singer/songwriter from Montana. Living 4,423 collective miles from Nashville, Los Angeles, and Austin lends itself to a bevy of logistical challenges. Of course, coming of age on your family’s cattle ranch might also instill an artistic integrity that could be harder to find for a city-bound songwriter whose daily routine includes waiting for a skinny-jean barista with curated facial hair and a neck tattoo to handcraft a $6 cup of coffee.
Wickens, a lifelong Montanan now living in Bozeman in the state’s mountainous southwestern corner, delivers an impressive, nine-song eponymous album that’s steeped in good songwriting, solid musicianship, and well-measured direction from Grammy-nominated producer Wes Sharon (Turnpike Troubadours, Parker Millsap). Wickens wrote or co-wrote the entirety of the record, which flows from one song to the next like the trout-rich rivers that wind their way through the region.
He may be a newcomer as a recording artist, but Wickens is no neophyte to the intertwinings of melody and lyric. He’s booked more than 300 (and counting) singer/songwriters to perform on “Live from the Divide,” a syndicated live-performance public radio program he and Grammy-winning producer Doc Wiley launched seven years ago. LFTD heavily features Americana artists. And, importantly, Wickens has interviewed most of them about songwriting — sometimes for inclusion in “Live from the Divide’s podcast, sometimes for personal edification. Perhaps some of the mojo of Sturgill Simpson, David Olney, Bonnie Bishop, Steve Earle, Ray Wiley Hubbard, and hundreds of other talented songsmiths, helped bring his own talents to the forefront.
Wickens opens the record with “Hi-Line,” an acoustic-driven ode to home hung on the backdrop of the rugged panoramas of Montana that have long brought out the best in artists. In it, these panoramas offer refuge from life’s tumultuous tumbles. Stellar Telecaster work by Ryan Engleman (Turnpike Troubadours) anchors “I Know You Don’t,” while driving a Garth-esque swing. The song two-steps through a flawed relationship ahead of a playful beat and melody that contradicts the otherwise heady topic at hand.
Clever wordplay and well-paced rhythms that are found throughout the record may prove to be a career-defining trait for Wickens. It also sets him two moves ahead of many artists who, in their debuts, fall into the trappings of being a little too sentimental and heartfelt with no counterbalance and little creative punch. “Fordyce Lane” packs energy and a straightforward buzzing, crunchy lead guitar like those offered in the 1990s by the V-Roys while under the wing of Steve Earle’s E-Squared label. The album also offers the seemingly obligatory strait-as-rain, country song about a man and his mom. Obligatory or not, to his credit, “Be Just Fine” is a good song. And, here again, he dances through it, propelled by a jangling beat that’s hard to resist. On “Faith in Me,” an old-school country song worthy of ’80s-era Charlie Daniels Band, Wickens explores a faith that eschews misguided uses of whiskey in the past while championing a newfound faith in family, fellow man, and the ground we stand on.
“Knob Hill” looks back at about a salty older character who cracked open the door to adulthood to not-quite-of-age youngsters: “I can still taste the freedom on my lips,” Wickens waxes, perhaps brushing past a little too easily that this salty character unquestionably deserves a stay at the iron-bar hotel for corrupting minors. And in “Traveling in My Mind,” Wickens’ inner poet takes flight to escape life’s trappings that can accrue from from being 100 percent grounded. With “Dancing on the Dark Side,” Wickens clever wordplay again comes to the forefront. It’s a heel-kickin’ 4/4 confessional that approaches mutual romantic betrayal with a commendable casualness.
In “Get to Work,” he offers much-deserved blue-collar advice to “these little shits.” It’s possible he’s referring to skinny-jeaned baristas handcrafting $6 lattes who perhaps spend a little too much time curating their beards and comparing neck tattoos. However, he’s unlikely to have run across this particular variety of hipster in the remote and rugged wilds of “The Last Best Place” that he calls home.
Throughout this record, Wickens examines life’s joys and complications while avoiding the sluggish, minor-key swamps that lessor, self-indulgent/self-important Americana-leaning country songwriters tend to drag listeners through. Misery loves company. Instead, Wickens shines as a promising talent. And the smart choices he made in writing good songs all but ensure Wickens’ performances this summer supporting the Turnpike Troubadours, Corb Lund, and Jason Eady will bump, bounce, and grind as lively as his debut record.