Album Review – Cole Chaney’s “Mercy”
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
May 20, 2021 @ 7:35 am
Must say I am guilty of possibly being over-zealous lol. Hard not to be when you discover someone new for the first time with compelling lyrics and a tasteful composition. Good honest review sir. Still my personal favorite record so far this year. Been burning it up this past week and sharing it with friends!
May 20, 2021 @ 7:42 am
a very good album and an interesting arist for sure but is the album only available in digital fomats?
May 20, 2021 @ 8:56 am
I’m curious about this as well. I can’t find any other available format. I’d gladly buy a cd or vinyl to support him
June 7, 2022 @ 6:25 pm
If you contact him on Facebook, he’ll help you out. I was lucky enough that I was able to get the album in CD format.
May 20, 2021 @ 7:57 am
I believe that “Mercy” is the best debut album I’ve ever heard. That’s not being over zealous, it’s calling it like I see it. I believe he separated himself from the Childers comparisons with this release. He’s crafted a stunner of a bluegrass record that includes all the sights, sounds, and struggles of Appalachian life. I really enjoy Zach Bryan, but I understood the Childers comparison much more based on Zachs vocals. Cole has a voice all his own. The only thing he has in common with Childers is a home state, Red Barn, and a knack for great songwriting. Arthur Hancock, Chris Shouse, and Michael Cleveland would never endorse an outright Childers clone.
Cool Lester Smooth
May 20, 2021 @ 9:38 am
Hah, I had the opposite reaction, vis a vis Childers – Chaney’s awesome, but I heard so much more Childers in his sound than I ever have Zach’s.
Like, this is proper Kentucky country, right down to the twang.
Zach’s releases have all been very much in the Red Dirt/Americana vein…right down to the vocals, which sound like a kid who can’t decide whether he wants to imitate Felker, Isbell, or Moreland.
Any time I hear someone compare Bryan’s and Childers’ vocals, I assume that they’ve only ever listened to Feathered Indians, haha.
May 20, 2021 @ 10:46 am
I never really understood the Zach Bryan / Tyler Childers comparisons, and I’m not saying they’re fair, or that it’s fair to compare Childers to Chaney. All I’m saying is that if you’re in that comparison business, Chaney syncs up with Childers way more to these ears.
I’m also not saying that to in any way discount his guy. I think this Cole Chaney album is great, and I think he’s doing his own thing while taking in Tyler Childers as an influence. Also, there are way worse comparisons someone could make to you than Tyler Childers.
If folks think this is the best album all year, or the best debut album they’ve ever heard, that’s awesome. I’m not trying to throw cold water on anything. But I’ve just seen a ton of buzz around almost any young guy coming out of Kentucky lately singing about coal, while other worthy songwriters can’t get any buzz at all. I’ve received probably two dozen emails at this point about Logan Halstead, who also sounds like Tyler, singing about coal. Very promising kid and I look forward to what he has in store. But as a critic, it’s your job to try and cut through hype and perception to the kernel of quality and appeal.
These guys are singing about coal and Kentucky because it works, and specific to them, it’s their story, and where they’re from. But in my opinion, I still think we need to measure it against the greater panorama of country subjects and influences, or we risk the whole Kentucky coal thing becoming a meme.
Cool Lester Smooth
May 20, 2021 @ 11:56 am
I will say, the best song I’ve heard about coal and Kentucky in the last 10 years or so is Cigarette Trees, by The Local Honeys.
May 20, 2021 @ 9:06 am
Thanks for the great review.. Depend on Saving Country Music to discover great new music. This is right up there with Juliet McConkey and Pony Bradshaw as favorites so far this year. When you list Kentucky musicians don’t forget Chris Knight.
May 20, 2021 @ 11:53 am
Chris Knight is still the goat of Kentucky no matter what.
May 20, 2021 @ 7:50 pm
Depends on whether you consider Dwight to be from Ohio or Ky. Knight is a boss for sure but Dwight would trump him. Yoakam was born in KY.
May 21, 2021 @ 3:34 pm
Man, that would be so great if Juliet already had another album out. But Disappearing Girl was last year. Pony Bradshaw is among my favorites this year too.
May 20, 2021 @ 9:37 am
Hard pass, a lot of these guys are sounding the same both vocally and musically.
May 20, 2021 @ 10:26 am
I guess I get the geographic basis for comparing Chaney to Childers, but I think that’s a disservice to Chaney. Childers has a rebel hippy streak that will tickle certain fancies (witness the fixation of some on “Thicket”, and the 420 aspects of Childers’ videos and art); I think those Childers fans are going to be bored with the likes of Chaney.
This album reminds me much more of Charles Wesley Godwin’s solo effort, and it’s a damn fine example of that vein. This is a buy for me, and I’ll likely get more mileage out of Mercy than Country Squire (and hey, I didn’t start the Childers comparison).
May 20, 2021 @ 10:33 am
“and hey, I didn’t start the Childers comparison”
Neither did I.
May 20, 2021 @ 10:49 am
I’d say your review does anticipate it, so we seem to be on the same page here.
I’m a noob to Chaney’s material, so I’m really not familiar with whatever social media buzz is out there surrounding it. I don’t really think it’s proper for folks to benchmark all things Appalachian by Childers. I’m sure this general style of music existed Before Childers. That goes for folks offended by Zach Bryan, too.
BTW, I wouldn’t know about Chaney if not for SCM, so thanks!
mouths of babes
May 20, 2021 @ 2:09 pm
If you know your Central KY underground country scene, you would hear a lot more than Childers in Cole’s sound. In fact, I would argue that Sundy Best are an equal or bigger sized part of his musical DNA than TC. Also, there is a healthy dose of Chris Knight in there.
If you listen close, you can even pick out hints of a Layne Staley inflection in his voice.
It’s a great debut album. I’ve heard from a very good source that CD’s are coming soon with vinyl following after that.
May 20, 2021 @ 8:27 pm
Agree on Sundy Best influence, there were a few times on how Cole delivered on singing I could see it similar to how Nick does.
May 20, 2021 @ 3:21 pm
I can see what you mean about a lot of people, myself included, getting overzealous about any new kentucky act. At this point even the youtube algorithms seem like they’re pushing coal related songs. I would also like to say that I think Abby Hamilton is among the most promising upcoming KY songwriters, because of the unique perspective and clever lyrics that she offers. I can’t wait for her to release a legitimate album
May 20, 2021 @ 4:17 pm
This. Does. Not. Suck.
May 20, 2021 @ 8:26 pm
“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. ”
Boy those words hit hard Trig. Best way I’ve heard it compared is to how people from Texas feel.
I’m glad Cole is getting praise on this it’s a hell of a debut
May 21, 2021 @ 5:07 am
Trigger, once again, you’re a master at what you do- that said, I’m not impressed based on the 2 videos- I’ve taken the song, Me and Mine (lamentations) as a “Kentucky/Ohio” song and it’s going to be hard, IMNSHO, to match it in any fashion- then, just a couple of weeks ago, I heard for the first time Rocksalt and Nails- a friend of my oldest son posted it on instagram- it too is a “Kentucky/Ohio” region song, based on the lyrics (down in the holler, where the waters run cold) – several people, including Childers, have it out- not one compares to the other and a best is hard to determine, though I do like Willie Watsons version, Utah Phillips does it quite well as the owner, but, my son’s friend does it really well also- then, there is a Steve Young version at an outdoor event that is awesome!
Point being, from my perspective, this is not new- the sparseness isn’t new and the voice isn’t as compelling to me as the mentioned- but, your presentation made me want to listen- that is my point.
I also think comparing him to anyone is a bit unfair to him- he is who he is- his style is his style- there ain’t one person whose style isn’t a culmination of all that he’s heard, seen and done- if his style is searching for a home in music it will evolve, ala Colter Wall- if not it will settle in and become what is expected of him- live he may be all that and a bag of chips, but these recordings don’t equal the hype you gave them-
But, don’t be disullusioned, Trigger, or Chaney- it’s the journey that counts, not the destination-
May 21, 2021 @ 5:09 am
A very good record, thanks for the review.
May 21, 2021 @ 6:40 am
I always find myself torn on these stripped down albums. While Cole sounds great here with good songs and great production, I always end up feeling I want more with these types of albums. I find myself thinking about how the song would have sounded with drums and bass and other instruments to fill out the sound. In the end I usually grow bored listening to a full album of stripped down songs, and opt to throw the best one or two into a playlist.
Overall this is a good debut and introduction to Cole Chaney, but I’ll personally be hoping for a more complete release in the future.
May 21, 2021 @ 5:31 pm
This dude is full of absolute pride and shit up to his eyes. Cole Chaney album of the year.
May 21, 2021 @ 5:32 pm
Get with it.
November 28, 2021 @ 1:40 pm
Where can we purchase the Mercy cd?