In the progressively popular but increasingly difficult effort to ferret out the nearest thing to what passes for true authenticity in today’s country music, consider yourself lucky if you stumble upon Colby T. Helms and his debut album Tales of Misfortune. Though it’s difficult to impossible these days to find any soul that’s completely untouched by the corrupting mandibles of modernization since we all walk around with the internet in our pocket, Colby is a character that comes about as close to the real deal you’ll ever hear or see from the 20-something set.
From the isolated foothills of Southwest Virginia where he was raised in an underground house built by his father, Helms turned to music at the age of 12 as a way to handle his father’s death from Cancer. It was hearing songs like “Standing On The Rock” from The Ozark Mountain Daredevils and the Gospel standard “A Beautiful Life” performed by local old-time and bluegrass pickers at his father’s funeral that directly inspired Colby to make music his passion.
Passion and older inspirations are exactly what you hear from this young man when the Western swing rhythms of the opening song “First Snow” hit your ears. Immediately your skepticism is relaxed, and no alarm bells go off on your cosplay meter. If anything, you worry this album is a little too authentic to find a wide audience. Without any drums or electrification, this one is for those hardcore mountain music aficionados. There just happens to be a lot more people who self-identify as mountain music aficionados these days, making this music much more current than you may expect.
It’s fair to say that some of the writing on Tales of Misfortune is nascent, but that’s to be expected from a young man figuring out his craft. After all, Colby wrote this album while he was still a senior in high school. But at other times the writing is catchy and cunning, showing surprising maturity. “First Snow” weaves fun riffs around the takeoff rhythm like a master lyricist does. “Leanne” shows an adroit use of words inspired by unrequited love. “Dove Song” equals the emotion of some of those hunting songs by the Turnpike Troubadours.
Colby’s band The Virginia Creepers are just what this music calls for: raw and ragged, but with a sneaky proficiency that doesn’t get in the way of the realness of the songs. The music takes on more of a busking or back porch aspect, giving it a pleasing homeliness. If the music was any more slick, it would be considered bluegrass, and not as unique. Colby himself picks away at an acoustic Gibson with “This Machine Kills Pop Country” written on the front.
The inevitable criticism you’ll hear for Colby T. Helms is how he sounds too much like Tyler Childers, which is not an unfair concern for an increasing amount of young performers. Singers and songwriters now come with phrasing and cadences indicative of Tyler Childers or Zach Bryan, because we live in an era when those two guys are young people’s biggest influences. Yet by keeping the music raw and unplugged, Helms flanks Childers in keeping it real. If Colby starts concluding his concerts with a 10-minute version of “Trudy,” then we’ll start to worry.
Until then, let’s enjoy these simple and honest expressions from a new and very promising artist who helps make sure country’s move toward authenticity isn’t just a trend for the present, but will be sustainable into the future. Autobiographical and semi-conceptualized, Tales of Misfortune is a solid foundation for Colby T. Helms to grow from.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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