It shouldn't come as a surprise that Kevin Gordon has never fit in with the Nashville program. He's simply too talented, too ambitious, and too ornery to make do with the prefab platters dished up by Music City denizens. And that's a damn good thing. It's been a good long time since I've heard a roots record as deeply pleasing as Down to the Well.
From the opening notes of the title track, a heartbreaking duet with reigning roots queen Lucinda Williams, it's clear that Gordon means business. "Church House" is a scorching piece of honky-tonk that jukes along to the sinuous fretwork of Gordon and his designated axman, Joe McMahan. "Promise Road" is the kind of song that would fit quite neatly alongside any of the songs on Bruce Springsteen's The River. It's an intensely felt song of protest, a foot-stomping rocker that celebrates the sufferings of working men. On "Deuce and a Quarter," Gordon lets himself romp all over a sweet, syncopated melody, and the results are equally joyous.
Gordon's debt to old bluesmen shines through on any number of cuts, particularly "Jimmy Reed," which features Bo Ramsey's mournful slide guitar, and a soulful cover of Earl King Johnson's "Time For the Sun to Rise." As gorgeous as his melodies and arrangements are, Gordon's lyrics are every bit as good. The opening to the scorching rocker "Water & Gasoline" reads like hard-bitten poetry: "On a pencil-leadgray afternoon/Rain makes the stray dog shine/I got a feeling stingin' like a new tattoo/Black across my mind."
Down to the Well is no doubt the finest roots-rock album of the year, a rollicking blend of country, blues, and rock. Steve Earle, watch your back.
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