Album Review – Cody Christian’s “Canary in a Coal Mine”

Like a motherlode vein of number 9 coal running deep beneath the mountain and seeming to never give out, the amount of musical talent emanating from coal country and gracing modern ears with authentic sentiments to feed the soul seems bountiful and endless these days, so much so that the sheer volume of voices makes it a challenge to keep up with them all, even when their efforts beg for attention.

It is in the pursuit of searching deep for the unheralded, but deserving songwriters of the region that one will stumble upon Virginia’s Cody Christian. Originally from the tiny town of Powhatan, you don’t need a biography of Cody Christian’s life story to get clued into what he’s all about. It’s all spelled right out in stark relief in the songs of his debut album Canary in a Coal Mine.

The opening title track explains how in Appalachia, you can spend your life going down in the mines until the ailments of the occupation overtake you, or perhaps you never come back up. Or you can take those hard-worn stories with you to Nashville where if you sign the wrong deal, it can result in a similar form of indentured servitude that can be just as detrimental to your health.

So Cody Christian split the difference and decided to head to the Virginia coast to become a shipbuilder in the Hampton Roads area. Slaving away each day making warships—and perfecting his musical chops on nights and weekends including in a band called Every King and Commoner—Cody did the best he could making it in the real world until his desire to make music full time won out.

Christian made local headlines in December of 2021 when he put in his two-weeks notice at Newport News Shipbuilding by sending an email to the some 20,000 total employees stating, “After eight years of employment, I have concluded that I deserve to work in an environment where my beard is valued. I have accepted a position as a Honky-Tonk man and I can’t seem to stop.”

Cody was hoping that his colorful exit may earn him a few fans, but it also made for a good song called “Two Week Notice.” There is little to no fiction in Cody Christian’s music. His struggles with wanting to be a responsible adult, while also pursuing a musical career is what makes up the lion’s share of this album’s material.

“Wife & Kids” and “Someday I Am” are specifically about the push and pull of wanting to pursue his musical dreams before it’s too late, but also not wanting to drag some poor woman along with him on what might be a fantasy, while also understanding how the responsibility of fatherhood can impinge on this pursuit as well.

Cody also makes it clear that the last thing he wants to do is sell his soul to Music Row, despite the carrots they may dangle in front of him, including at one point reportedly being tendered a deal to make a big production record in Nashville, but one that he would be on the $80,000 bill for if things didn’t go right.

So instead he’s doing what he can to get his name out there while remaining independent, taking both sonic inspirations and the same approach to the business as Tyler Childers did. Canary in a Coal Mine is a strong musical effort, if a little unrefined and wobbly at the beginning. And though the songs are more personal at the start and his unique cover of Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” is pretty seductive, it’s the back half of the record where a greater depth of composition is found, and the instrumentation tightens up.

With so many choices these days in the “Appalachian authenticity” genre, it may be difficult for Cody Christian to find the attention he needs to be able to care for the wife and kids solely off his music. But with Canary in a Coal Mine, Cody definitely proves he deserves to.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)

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