Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Sam Grow and Town Mountain

Sam Grow – Manchester

This album is co-produced by Colt Ford, one of the progenitors of bro-country who wrote Dirt Road Anthem. Singer Sam Grow is a more traditional singer rather than a rapper or speak-singer, although Manchester has all the ingredients of a classic Jason Aldean album: wide-open choruses, guitar solos, basic imagery and direct lyrics. I wonder if this has slipped out of fashion, even though it will always have an audience.

There are breakup songs by the barrel. On the punchy Live It Down, Sam’s life contrasts with a girl ‘in a new time zone’ putting happy pictures on social media; on Past A Heartbreak, the female protagonist is played by singer ACORN, who has moved on with her life; the roles are reversed on Over Me By Now, with his ex crawling back to Sam. He co-wrote Truck in the Yard, where our narrator is sad that it ain’t his truck coming home to the woman he used to have.

The lack of variety is becoming dull, as happens on Aldean’s albums.  The second side begins with Rascal Flattsish piano on the song Good At Lyin’, yet another breakup song, this one disguised as a series of statements which are actually the reverse of what Sam thinks, eg ‘I like to drink alone because I like my own space’. If I Had My Way is a four-chord song which had CJ Solar in the room and includes the lyric ‘middle finger flipped up’, which is very Aldeanish.

Maybe is a proper country song with a nice lyrical hook, but by track nine (Past A Heartbreak) we’ve already had eight breakup songs. Staying Over (great title) is probably the best, implying that an expired relationship cannot be rekindled; ‘every touch is just taking me higher’ sounds like a line that has been on every Aldean album. Found Love (‘when I found you’) is a power ballad which should have come far earlier in the tracklist to break up the bulwark of break-up songs. 

As befits a country album, there’s a song set in a barroom which compares a hook-up to a sip of Cheap Whiskey. Bar Like This was written with the great Terry McBride, who brings his ear for a nagging hook to a song which has characters celebrating divorce or promotion or just living itself. It closes the album, by which time many listeners may have tuned out; more songs like this would have made the album far stronger.

Town Mountain – Lines In The Levee

New West Records is a home for American artists who make American music. American Aquarium, Andrew Combs and Asleep at the Wheel are on it, and that’s just the As. Ben Folds, Buddy Miller (the mastermind behind the music of TV show Nashville), Calexico, Drive-By Truckers, Giant Sand, Guided By Voices, Jason Isbell, Jerry Lee Lewis, John Hiatt and his daughter Lilly, Joshua Hedley, Los Lobos, Lucinda Williams, Neko Case, Nikki Lane, Rodney Crowell, The Secret Sisters, Sara Watkins, Son Volt, Steve Earle; all are New Westies. The label also owns the catalogues of the outlaws: Merle, Willie, Waylon, Kris, JR Cash.

All this is to say that any act signing to the label is already held in high esteem, the sort of musicians who appeal to classic rock’n’roll or country with a lyricism and depth that goes beyond whatever Music Row puts out as ‘country’. Town Mountain are new signings to New West and it seems to be a match made in honky-tonk heaven, given that according to the band’s banjo player Jess they ‘let the artist steer the ship’.

The band played the first Earl Scruggs Music Festival recently alongside bluegrass mainstays Molly Tuttle, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas and many more. The sextet come from Luke Combs’ hometown Asheville in North Carolina, a mountainous state which deserves its own radio show if I ever get tired of the Red Dirt states of Texas and Oklahoma. Accordingly, the title and opening track has the typical Southern fiddle, harmonies and stomp common in bluegrass music.

Fans of Old Crow Medicine Show, Turnpike Troubadours and Avett Brothers – who are also from NC and seem too hackneyed a comparison with Town Mountain – will find much to enjoy in this album. As a Counting Crows fan, I love any bands where it feels like there’s a party in the studio. Comeback Kid, with mandolin, fiddle and banjo, is a fine example of their sound.

The great outdoors are all over the album. Magnolia blooms on Distant Line, while ‘the river’s riding high’ on Seasons Don’t Change, which has a magnificent solo violin section played with control and poise by Bobby Britt, a graduate of Berklee College. This bleeds into Daydream Quarantina, whose lyrics look back on a time before the pandemic. Charley Pride, who passed away from the virus in 2020, also gets a toast.

Big Decisions has the narrator heading out to California, with the great lyric ‘that’s a damn I’m just through givin’ emphasising his quest. Firebound Road has a punchline to go with its mandolin and fiddle solos: at a gig in California they are advertised as Mountain Town! This doesn’t deter them from touring the USA this fall and winter, though it may make venue managers double-check the marquee sign!

The variety of moods is excellent here, with the hyperactive American Family balancing out the stately, pessimistic Unsung Heroes. The six-minute closer Lean Into The Blue is the Town Mountain take on the break-up song. Sam Grow should listen closely.

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