Album Review – Drayton Farley’s “Twenty on High”

With a couple of acoustic releases over the last couple of years, Alabama songwriter Drayton Farley rocketed up the depth charts of emerging talent in the Americana realm with the way his songs resonated with audiences irrespective of their stripped-down nature, and tantalized the imagination about his upside potential once a full band was placed behind him.

Drayton Farley’s new album Twenty on High lives up to both the standard of songwriting he set for himself early on, and the hope of what might happen if more enhanced production was brought to them. The results are such where it’s now appropriate to name Drayton Farley among the top flight of resurgent country-adjacent performers carrying on what artists such as Jason Isbell helped instigate six or seven years ago, ultimately sparking an American roots revolution.

A smart ass might say something along the lines of how Drayton Farley’s full studio debut is the best album Jason Isbell has released since Southeastern. For sure, the similarities between Drayton Farley’s vocal delivery and song structure with his fellow Alabaman are picked up by the ear immediately. These similarities are rendered even more pronounced since Twenty on High was produced by 400 Unit member Sadler Vaden, and the back line of bassist Jimbo Hart and drummer Chad Gamble also contributed to the album.

There are much more terrible things to be compared with or sound similar to than Jason Isbell and Southeastern. Isbell’s 2013 album was one of the greatest country/Americana releases of the last decade. And though Sturgill Simpson and Tyler Childers have given way to a host of similar sounding doppelgangers, Isbell’s legacy has been mostly insulated from this phenomenon, partly because many try to attain that Isbell-level of songcraft indicative of his post Drive-By Truckers era, and fail. Drayton Farley fairly succeeds.

The sounds may be similar, but the sentiments are all Drayton Farley’s. You listen to the opening song “Stop The Clock” about yearning for a simpler time of youth and the minute details he shares like red dust settling over everything, and it’s hard to not conclude that Drayton is his own man, sharing his own experiences.

A decade less of life results in a differing perspective compared to Americana’s current heavyweights. The crippling anxiety so many younger people face these days comes to life in “Above My Head” and “Something Wrong”—the former’s chorus intimating, “The more there is the more there is to lose, and that’s what keeps me awake…” making for a refrain many folks can relate to intimately. “Norfolk Blues” is another early favored track evoking the workingman’s struggle, which is one of the themes shared across country and Americana.

In some respects Drayton Farley’s music is also akin to Morgan Wade, whose full band debut album Reckless was also produced by Sadler Vaden, and who also initially came to be known mostly through acoustic performances. Similar to the Morgan Wade work, some may be frustrated that Drayton’s album ultimately didn’t render out with more country in the sound. But that’s not exactly Sadler Vaden’s style.

After all, Sadler Vanden once mocked Saving Country Music on Twitter for looking like a MySpace page. Little did he know that’s exactly what was aimed for—hearkening back to a time when social media helped sow community in music over great distances through shared taste as opposed to spreading acrimony throughout society even among mostly like-minded people.

But unlike the Morgan Wade record that veers into outright pop in moments, Drayton Farley’s Twenty on High allows for the country roots of Americana to poke through in places, like in “Devil’s in NOLA,” which is more of a country song than it is anything else, or the fiddle in “How To Feel Again” performed by 2021 Americana Instrumentalist of the year Kristin Weber.

Also dissimilar to Morgan Wade, Drayton Farley calls back to his acoustic-only origins in the final two songs of the album, satisfying ears that grew used to him in that context, and turning in arguably the album’s greatest track in “The Alabama Moon” about being in Tulsa, and missing home. Again, some of the sounds may be borrowed, but the sentiments on Twenty on High never are.

It seems fair to ask if more separation between the Jason Isbell sound and Drayton Farley could have been insisted upon. But what’s hard to question is the ultimate results. For the American roots revolution that Jason Isbell helped start with The 400 Unit to take hold and spread, it needs new and younger artists inspired by its founding works to take it to new audiences and younger generations. Drayton Farley does this with Twenty on High.

8/10

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