No different from when San Francisco became the epicenter of the psychedelic movement in the 60’s, grunge became centerpiece of popular music from Seattle in the 90’s, or when Buck and Merle shook country music up from the outpost of Bakersfield, Kentucky has now become such a voluminous and reliable generator of musical aptitude, it would be foolhardy to not train your nervous system towards the region and its neighboring territories in a dedicated manner in search for new music.
And now we can no longer regard names like Sturgill Simpson, Tyler Childers, and Chris Stapleton as newcomers to Kentucky’s rich musical legacy. Their bodies of work are worthy enough to regard as legendary in their own right, no matter how near the history may be, if for no other reason than they’re already influencing a new generation of songwriters and performers sprouting up through the bluegrass, or emerging from the hollers to find their own voices and claim a share of the musical consciousness.
No better case in point than Cole Chaney from the Kentucky town of Cattlesburg right on the banks of the Ohio River, and right near the confluence of the Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia borders. Where many have dipped their toes into the Kentucky experience with their music, Cole Chaney wades in up to the neck, hollering and wailing about coal mines, flooding catastrophes, dreams cauterized in their infancy due to fleeting opportunities, and other conflagrations that the captivating and hearty characters of the region regularly experience, and that makes such compelling art and stories in the form of country music.
With a poetic disposition and an acoustic guitar, the 20-year-old former welder stirs a lot of emotion and has drawn a sizable crowd with an economy of instrumentation on his debut album Mercy, often only accompanied by fiddle, a bit of bass, and some mandolin, and sometimes by nothing but the natural acoustics of the room. It’s the nakedness of the effort that exposes the sincerity of the writing, and the brilliance of the composition, even if it requires an intent audience dedicated to listening for story as opposed to simple commuters scanning the commercial airwaves for a fetching melody.
Kentucky is the constant, but the subjects and characters cast a wide net from that starting point—from the invariable topic of coal, to stories of desperation, while Cole’s song “The Air Between” similar to “Lady May” by Tyler Childers presents the love story necessary to most any complete work, and “Wishing Well” takes you beyond the Kentucky border, offering commentary on the corruption in the media, and the social media’s corruption of us all.
The genius of Cole Chaney and Mercy is the way it sketches a complete picture of the hopelessness found in much of rural Kentucky. Coal was the bane of the land and the rights of the working man when it first appeared, but it’s leaving created an even more complex and diabolical host of problems. Those from Kentucky feel a close kinship with the land and a strong pull keeping them there, but often the only hope is found in leaving. It is this vice clamp characterized most strongly in the songs “Back to Kentucky,” “Leaving,” and possibly in the crown jewel of the set, “The Flood,” that paint a resplendent picture of despondency that is at the heart of most all great country music.
Taking a similar trajectory as Sturgill Simpson and Tyler Childers by starting his ascent appearing on Kentucky’s Red Barn Radio program, Cole Chaney and Mercy are already inspiring breathless assessments and “Album of the Year” pronouncements by some. But this feels premature for a host of reasons, perhaps most obviously that the direct comparisons to Tyler Childers have been Cole’s greatest asset, but will also become a burden when introduced to a wider audience.
If folks had their hair set on fire over Oklahoma’s Zach Bryan being a Tyler Childers doppelganger, they’ll be setting their entire bodies ablaze like Buddhist monks protesting the Vietnam War over Cole Chaney. Though the simple arrangements of the songs on Mercy are flattering to his songs, it doesn’t help establish a sound or approach unique to himself. This all still feels somewhat nascent, and though compliments are certainly in order for Mercy and encouragement is healthy, over-zealousness could poison this freshly-discovered career still being formed. People hear “Kentucky” and “coal” in songs, and it can be immediately overvalued.
It’s not just the entertainment value Mercy conveys in the present tense. It’s the opportunity Cole Chaney presents as the next Kentucky native to emerge out of the hills and hollers to help save country music with an entire career ahead of him, and a sound indicative of Kentucky, but original all to himself. That’s why Mercy should be celebrated, and why we should also stay hungry for what’s to hopefully come next from him.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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Purchase Cole Chaney’s Mercy