Review: Cooper McBean ‘The Magnolia Sessions’

Growing up my exposure to country music was primarily from my grandmother who, while sitting at her sewing machine, would listen to albums from the likes of John Denver and sing along to other wholesome shiny Nashville style approved country voices. It contrasted with the energy and excitement of my mother’s Queen collection and being too young I found the whole thing utterly unrelatable.

Cooper McBean 'The Magnolia Sessions'

It was not until when I discovered the likes of Hank Williams III and the grittier blue-collar side of the country genre to give itself a voice beyond the wholesome cowboy trail songs as they were replaced by more realistic world experiences. Of course, there is a degree of age bringing perspective, but this seemingly spoke to me as soul food in the way the likes of say Trent Rezner gave voice to my teenage angst. Through The Magnolia Sessions Anti-Corporate Music/Black Matter Recordings main man Dan Emery has showcased the artists who embody the classic American country, folk and bluegrass spirit of freedom and yet bring the very real, downtrodden sense of the working-class struggle.

The latest release in the second season of the sessions shines the spotlight on Cooper McBean, frontman of The Devil Makes Three, the prolific jazz, ragtime, country/folk outfit from California. As ever with the sessions, Cooper’s story is as much a part of the ambiance and helps the understanding of the music. Recorded during the second summer of COVID with doubt about his band circulating and the future hanging heavy; out of practice and at times bereft of hope, the live recording is very much the sound of an artist rediscovering his craft and purpose.

Recommended by Benjamin Todd of Lost Dog Street Band, this set by Cooper rivals their session in terms of my favourite contributions, soulfully executing each song in one take, this is one of the most poignant and stirring sets I have heard in a long time.

Full of energy it starts with the light-hearted Hello, a paean to life on the road, and the love that McBean has for performing and living that troubadour life shines through as he talks of that itch to get back and play. Joking about that drunk guy in the corner shouting ‘Freebird’, wistfully talking of gigs, and saying ‘hello to Dan’s Magnolia Tree’, it’s a tender touching moment that gives pause for the oft unspoken toll on mental health the pandemic has wrought.

The deftly picked banjo of Porkchops And Latkes/Sandy River Belle carries the session into Wheels, another stirring lament that talks of the road life, but this time home being in the arms of the ones you love, highlighting the dichotomy of the touring musician, Turn The Page this is not.

Despite the soul laid bare nature of the lyrics, the session never feels like a drag or a dirge…

Hard Times is a standout as it details the struggles of working life that relates on many levels, and all ages, in its tale of corporations strangling and squeezing every last reasonable drop out of everyday folks. Whilst the notion itself is nothing new, the theme harks back to the Great Depression, it references the 80s Reaganomics and the current global crisis. Over simple, jaunty strings, he relates a tale of buying pickles as a metaphor for the spirally disparity between rich and poor. It’s a concept as old as country music itself and timeless in its highlighting of injustice. Not to mention a genuine earworm that will go around in your head long after the record has stopped playing.

As with most of the artists that Emery has invited to his compound in Nashville, Cooper has a poetic and troubled soul that he expresses with a brutal, raw honesty that tugs at the heartstrings as he lays bare the fragility of the soul on tracks like Talkin To The Wall or Only For Tonight. The latter talks of finding small comforts in ‘liquor, beer, and wine… if only for tonight’ to try and deal with the disenfranchisement of existence which is relatable to anyone who has endured hardships and felt out of place in the world. The former talks of depression and the feelings of helplessness, again highlighting the conflicting and very real feelings of struggling with the human experience.

Despite the soul laid bare nature of the lyrics, the session never feels like a drag or a dirge. Whether it’s the fast plucked banjo compositions interspersing these moments, or the hopeful lyrics in the likes of closing song 4th Of July, which celebrates the small moments of stillness and peace that keep us going and give us peace, like tender intimacy, grass on bare feet and fireworks.

Cooper brings a very human and complexly personal voice that tells a tale, that in itself, is relatable and humble, giving an insight into his struggles, but never once asks for pity. As a journey of rediscovery of self, this is hard to rival and as previously said, is a reflection of the artist’s own story forming an intimate part of the live set.

Captured faithfully and lovingly as always in the humid, insect filled night one summer in Nashville, it’s hard not to be transported to that magnolia tree and a privilege to get to be invited to share in the moment, demonstrating the vital power of music to speak directly to the heart.

Label: Anti-Corporate Music
Band Links: Facebook | Bandcamp | Instagram

Scribed by: Mark Hunt-Bryden