The second of The Magnolia Sessions season 2 sees Anti-Corporate Music/Black Matter Mastering owner and visionary for the series Dan Emery, bring Texas raised songwriter Hayden Karchmer to the Nashville Headquarters, location of the impressive tree that lends its name to the sessions. Performing under the moniker of The Hill Country Devil, Karchmer is yet another unique artist whose nomadic background has leant a wealth of experience, whether through disparate location or triumphs and desperation, to his heartfelt tunes.
Despite travelling far and wide, there is an innate southern root that permeates through the tales that are woven, performed by Hayden and an acoustic guitar by firelight into the evening as the insect’s chirp in the background; the stripped back format hones in on the performance, giving the artist and the songs nowhere to hide.
Having already attempted this once, the released version is actually the second time that Karchmer travelled to perform. The first session was sabotaged by the time of year and lacked the insect noise that almost forms a common theme running through the Magnolia performances, instead it featured a storm ruining the take. This time the artist was at less than imagined full strength due to numerous issues, but when the tape was rolling, he delivered a soulful collection of raw, emotional tracks that in his own words, ‘is a road map for me. Songs written as far back as fourteen years ago, and as recently as a few months. All in a different place, a different time, and from arguably different men; tethered to one another less by the flow of the material, and more so the overall story they represent. Pieces of me, scattered in several few-minute verses, belted under a Magnolia tree during a summer night in Nashville, Tennessee.’
Having lost myself quite deeply in the opening session of season 2 with the Lost Dog Street Band, The Hill Country Devil’s turn took a moment to get used to. As the familiar scene setting sounds of the compound at night was broken by the strumming guitar, it was slightly jarring to hear the strains of Restaurant Rat open the set. Best described as jaunty and playful, the track is almost upbeat, despite the lyrical content which is both humorous and irreverent and couldn’t be further from the dying strains of the previous session closer.
However, the thing to bear in mind with The Magnolia Sessions is despite the same setting, Emery has drawn distinctly individual artists whose only bond is the soulful blues, folk, or country they impart. On repeated listens Restaurant Rat reveals a charm and a depth that you may not see immediately and was designed as a light-hearted start for the artist under some duress, but I must confess it caught me out for a moment.
The Hill Country Devil is an exceptional artist in his ability to craft songs that are mesmerising, despite their downbeat and bleak nature…
By the time the sombre, emotional strains of Tarot Card emerge from the chirping insects, complete with Karchmer’s scrapped, damaged sounding voice lamenting lines like, ‘It’s easier to cling to nothing than let it go’ the music begins to resonate with me. I’m sure not all country has to be downbeat, but there is something powerful about the lazy, accented drawl that lends itself to tales of sorrow and struggle. This continues on Michigan Rose, with its melodic and delicate picked guitar, slightly hopeful, almost like country roads, but for the lovesick and emotionally damned.
Somewhere Safe And Always Quiet is one of the most powerful tracks on the session and comes across like a dusty, tender lament. The vocals are strangely smooth at times and then creak with passion as the song rises and falls, almost reminding me of Johnny Cash covering Nine Inch Nail’s Hurt. What this session proves is that the blues is not so much of a genre as a mindset.
Many of the songs by The Hill Country Devil don’t scan like you would imagine a blues, folk, or country song should do, whether it is in tone or lyrical construct, but it is undeniable that it belongs. The idea that one man and an acoustic guitar can’t be ‘heavy’ can be laid to rest here as there are countless bands who wish they could create something as touching, and genuine, as Trophy Scars from their toolbox with its brutal honesty and self-deprecation.
Genuine is the perfect word. Listen to enough music over a long period of time and you can forgive artists for their dalliances when they deliver something as real as some of the songs on display here. Karchmer has an incredible gift for articulating his wealth of stories in an increasingly hypnotic thick accent, half-sung, half-spoken, feeling like he is almost riffing freestyle as this all pours out of him. If the cowboy lifestyle is considered an authentic connection back to other times, then tracks like Green Grass and Kerr County Dopesick Blues transport you to that other world, not necessarily one you want to be in, but one you undeniably feel. Even the light-hearted Magazine Blues, described as ‘a silly one’ manages to carry the weight of its message with sincerity, before the world weary To Carry On signs off on an almost perfect note.
Many of the artists on The Magnolia Sessions are completely unfamiliar to me for a myriad of reasons, but each new session brings insight and a revelation, and the second instalment of this season was no exception. It is clear from this nine-track set alone that The Hill Country Devil is an exceptional artist in his ability to craft songs that are mesmerising, despite their downbeat and bleak nature. This is a man who has lived a life that would break a lesser person and here he gets to tell his story, not to bring you down, but hopefully to show you that whatever you’re going through, you’re not alone.
Scribed by: Mark Hunt-Bryden