After years of progressive exposure to American bluegrass audiences, first through the wonderful and lamented band Kane’s River, and on an ongoing basis with Growling Old Men, John Lowell has established himself as a significant force in modern acoustic music. With his warm, inviting tenor voice, he sings in an unhurried, comfortable fashion that showcases the carefully crafted lyrics of his songs. And unlike so many of today’s acoustic guitar flatpickers, Lowell chooses his notes on his Mario Proulx guitar with great taste and care, setting each one out sparingly and in perfect relationship to its companions.
On his first solo CD, I Am Going To The West, Lowell takes the listener back in time, back to the era of records by artists like Dan Crary, Doc Watson, Norman Blake, and others where their guitars and voices intertwined to tell great musical stories, not just display their hot licks. In Lowell’s hands, his guitar paints elegant landscapes with the power and eloquence of a stunning black and white photograph.
As a true Westerner, Lowell is most comfortable singing about outlaws and rancher’s daughters and being on the road for days. His gorgeous ballad “Sarah Hogan” is one of those tunes that could easily be sung around campfires for decades to come. On “Waterbound,” the listener can hear the ache in his voice at being trapped by floodwater and his own lustful desires, unable to get home until both subside.
Most tunes here are just John and his guitar, a simple combination that works beautifully. His interpretation of “Buffalo Skinners” richly details the trials and travails of life on the prairie, where hired guns rode deep into the plains to hunt the American bison to near extinction. When he joins forces with other musicians, such as his simply adorned, enchanting title track supported by piano and tin whistle, the effect is hauntingly gorgeous and memorable.
There are some clever up-tempo tunes like “Mama Don’t Like It” and a buoyant recreation of the classic traveling tune, “8 More Miles To Louisville” that keep the overall feeling from being too languid. But mostly these are ballads, sung with an easy warmth and conviction.
Musicians, inevitably, are deeply affected by the landscape and horizon of where they live. Had John Lowell been born and raised in West Virginia, we’d be hearing songs of coal mining and other regional topics. As a Westerner, he encapsulates an openness in both his topics and his musicality that shines like the Montana sun glistening off the Madison River. This is music that flows with power and directness like a glacier-fed stream building strength as it runs downhill. A wonderful project from a talented singer, guitarist, and songwriter. (John Lowell, P.O. Box 743, Livingston, MT 59047, www.johnlowell.com.)DJM