Those who know, know. Those who don’t should work to remedy that, and post haste. We’re talking about whether your musical universe includes any knowledge of New Mexico native Cahalen Morrison, or not. From his six year musical partnership with Eli West, to his solo works, or his residency in the supergroup Western Centuries, he is country music’s woefully overlooked, tremendously humble, but highly regarded underground songwriter and performer extraordinaire who can woo most any audience with an appeal for roots music, whether it’s kicking out honky tonk, picking old-time, or writing and rendering his own original material that veers between both disciplines fluently.
If you’re searching for a good excuse of why you should allow Cahalen Morrison to intercede in your busy listening schedule, simply pipe up his solo record Wealth of Sorrow recorded in an old adobe chapel in the remote village of Jaroso near the Colorado/New Mexico border. Prepare to be stunned from the opening song on, where Cahalen starts out performing a capella on an original composition called “This Whole Broken World,” dispelling any notion that you need a collaboration of instruments and fancy production to capture audio magic.
The wide public has been left weary from the amount of acoustic albums and cover records released by restless and cash-strapped musicians in recent months, and for fair reasons. But that’s not how Wealth of Sorrow should be regarded. Instead imagine Ralph Peer or John Lomax foraging through the hills and hollers of Appalachia and the American West, ferreting out the rich musical wonders lurking in the forgotten corners of the rural world, hiding among the meek and poor. This is what you feel you’ve uncovered when you hear this record—primitive, raw, and real, with nothing shielding you from the naked emotion and wisdom imparted in these songs.
Where most songs and performers must conceal their shortcomings in layers of music and mixing, Cahalen Morrison strips it all back to expose the expanse and character of his voice, and the depth of his insight. He turns in three a capella songs before the expiration of Wealth of Sorrow, and you finish wishing there were more. But he also brings banjo and guitar to certain tracks, keeping the approach very simple, even if his finger work is fleet and voice expressive enough to make the experience feel symphonic, with a mic in the middle of the room and a wood stove burning in the distance, sometimes with the crackle of the embers coming through in the mix.
But the real wealth of this record may not be in the noise it makes, but the words it conveys. You keep checking the liner notes, not entirely confident this is all original material from just one man. But aside from the final song—the traditional folk tune “Young Jamie Foyers”—they all spring from the pen of Cahalen. Hell, you don’t even need the audio at all. Most selections of Wealth of Sorrow are rich enough to read as poetry. Later in the album, Chahalen turns a bit biblical, as he’s known to do, with Noah’s flood narrative back dropping “All Over Babylon.”
There are many searching for the right words to define these moments we’re living in, sometimes coming across as too literal, or too trite while straining to be poignant. Truth is what reverberates in the hearts of listeners, as it always has. It’s just if you say the truth in the right manner, it can reverberate even heavier with the weight hanging in the air in these heavy moments. That’s what allows Wealth of Sorrow to score so deep, if you allow it to, and if you stop down and listen.
Wealth of Sorrow once again emphatically underscores what a one-of-a-kind talent Cahalen Morrison is all his own. Combining him with Ethan Lawton and Jim Miller (who passed away earlier this year) truly made Western Centuries a supergroup. But Cahalen Morrison doesn’t even really need any accompaniment, or even music to make a major impact. He proves that on Wealth of Sorrow.
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Purchase from Fluff & Gravy Records
Purchase from Bandcamp
Editor’s Note: Cahalen Morrison originally released Wealth of Sorrow exclusively to Bandcamp in 2020. Saving Country Music originally reviewed the album then, ultimately being so impressed with the title, it was nominated for the 2020 Album of the Year. Being exclusive to Bandcamp though, Wealth of Sorrow did not enjoy the wide audience it deserves, so Fluff & Gravy Records has now officially re-released it with wide digital and physical distribution.
Though Saving Country Music never reposts old articles as new (unlike some other websites), an exception is being made in this instance to make sure this important album does not get overlooked, and because the original review was deemed to articulate the beauty and importance of the release better than a new one would. Some edits were made to update the review for 2022.