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 recent 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 which can veer between both 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 newly released solo record, Wealth of Sorrow, recorded in an old adobe chapel in April of last year 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.
Pay special attention to the title track, and little lines here and there, like “You can’t change the future by looking back,” which comes imploring through in “Where The Bluebird Sings,” or “My mother left by illness, my father by triggered gun…” in the haunting “Dark and Dreary.” Lyrics for Wealth of Sorrow are available on Bandcamp where this record was released exclusively, and are worthy of referencing. Later, 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. The truth is what reverberates now in the hearts of listeners is what always has. It’s just if you say it right, it can reverberate even more 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.
As fun as Western Centuries continues to be—and hopefully returns to the road in full force once it’s safe—listening to 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 truly makes 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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Wealth of Sorrow is available exclusively on Bandcamp .