Steve Earle’s quote about standing on Bob Dylan’s coffee table and declaring Townes Van Zandt to be the greatest songwriter is a fantastic soundbite and one that has found enduring life in the reverence of country music. I riffed off it in adoration of Benjamin Tod on this very website and one of the greatest American songwriters of the last 25 years, Tim Easton, opined in recent years that ‘Austin Stambaugh is the best flatpicking songwriter you’ve never heard of and I’ll stand on Steve Earle’s coffee table in my redwing boots and say it’.
Stambaugh himself hails from Ohio, the Northeast tip of the Midwest, but relocated to Nashville, the musical mecca of country and folk, to try and carve his name in the stone. Releasing several albums, including the dissonant blues, eastern idealism and Spanish influences of Where She Will Go (2018) and a spoken word album of poetry and short stories, Fool Talkin’ (2020), as well as joining the fabled list of artists who recorded under Dan Emery’s famed Magnolia Tree for his 2021 session.
Now bringing his latest melodic walkthrough of stories to life, he found particular inspiration in the nonfiction side of his experiences and channelled the accompanying music heard in his head into what he has proclaimed the greatest record he has ever made. The eleven tracks that makeup Midwest Supernatural were recorded in three short days, completely live and requiring minimal overdubs to capture the raw feelings behind the songs and by his own admission the process scared him ‘to death’. Fortunately, he was ably guided by the Anti-Corporate Music supremo himself and assisted in the production by the legend that is Benjamin Todd (Lost Dog Street Band).
Backed by a cast of talented musicians that, according to the press release, include ‘world-class drummer John Mctigue III (Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell), bass fiddle player Jared Manzo (Chris Scruggs, Brazilbilly), fiddle visionary Derek Pell (Ray Price), and Northeast Ohio pedal steel giant Stephen ‘Tebbs’ Karney (Rodney & The Regulars)’. There is a kind of folk music Avengers Assemble rallying cry to the album that adds an understated amount of muscle to the dreamy collection of blue-collar tunes that tug at the heartstrings.
Opening with the lazy waltz of ’Til I Reach Downtown, Austin’s Midwest drawl is wistful, and the deep pulse of the bass fiddle plods with a saunter under the violin bends and steel guitar. As the vocal notes exaggerate and elongate to emphasise the hook of the line, you are drawn and soothed by the tale of trying to walk the straight path. As on previous releases, his lyrical inflexions are fluid, almost effortless as they pull you in and envelope you in the story, to the point you can almost feel yourself riding next to him in the truck, the bumps on the road swaying the vehicle in time with the rhythm.
Ain’t Through Being Lonely Yet is slower, steeped in the melancholy that the title suggests. The introspective lament combines deft guitar work and the lightest of touches in the backing instruments to allow the sombre and devastating sadness to permeate the track. Never overdone to the point of labouring the imagery, or the track becoming an overbearing dirge, the number retains a deep emotional pull of sincerity.
beautiful and emotive country folk music…
The pace picking of Final Delivery showcases the skills that Easton is enthused about and Stambaugh weaves similes like ‘pale as primer’ around the tale of a long-distance trucker who meets a personal tragic end but alleviates to a wider one. This minutia of human experience echoes with sentiment and understanding beyond his years.
It Doesn’t Matter Now lifts the atmosphere a little despite the aching loss that is presented with the sort of matter-of-fact lines like ‘If it doesn’t matter now, it will never matter when’. A deeply personal yearning that lilts with a sense of melancholy towards things past before the quiet and sombre tale of Jim Given Of LaGrange tells of the blue-collar simplicity of hard-working folk complete with violins that drip with the sadness of the everyday hardship of struggling to get by that often ends in quiet, personal tragedy.
Thankfully Big Engine Blue picks the pace back up with the swish of brushes on the drums and a ditty about slowing down and riding the titular train, advising not to rush rolling down the line. What It Costs continues this sentiment of time passing too fast, the delicate instrumentation once again acts as the supporting cast to Stambaugh’s emotive blues, with the picking once again providing breathing space and stopping the track from feeling bogged down in misery.
By contrast, San Marcos Inn is a toe-tapping, rich blues number, built around the throb of the bass and drawing influence from the same school that The Doors borrowed from on Morrison Hotel and My Pennsylvania Girl keeps the momentum moving with a light, top-down, open highway trip feel that lifts the album into an upbeat mood and feeling more like the release of a cathartic breath.
As the album draws to a conclusion, the pairing of the hopeful Let’s Be Brothers Here, drenched in the concept of fleeting time and mortality is imbued with optimism and the knowing We Live In The Dream We Choose rounds out the album with a sense of warmth and comfort that no matter the journey that is behind us, the future is in our making and we can only embrace the best of ourselves.
At times Midwest Supernatural feels dream-like, out of time and an insight into another world. Stambaugh invites the listener into a comfortable space to explore heartache, sorrow, but most importantly hope. It feels very much like a throwback record at times, but on repeated listens the depth of soul on this record shines through.
As ever, if you are looking for beautiful and emotive country folk music then Anti-Corporate Music deliver yet again.
Scribed by: Mark Hunt-Bryden