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.
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March 6, 2023 @ 8:52 am
I actually feel like this one deserves a rare 9 on your scale, Trigg. It’s that good.
March 6, 2023 @ 9:00 am
I knew it was an instant classic after my first spin. Listened to it 5 or 6 times this weekend and think it’s a 9/10
March 6, 2023 @ 9:01 am
It’s the best album Jason Isbell has realised since…nah ,only kidding.
Listened to it at the weekend fantastic album but sounding like Jason vocally and with Sadler producing and two other 400 Unit guys playing there no escape from the similarities.
Maybe it was a mistake going down that route,maybe a different producer and band would have played down the obvious similarities.
Then again its a great album so I’ll just enjoy it.
March 6, 2023 @ 9:18 am
Can’t stop playing this one. I did see somewhere that Drayton acknowledges the Isbell comparisons and is beyond flattered by them. As Trigger points out perfectly, the sound may be similar but the words and feelings are all his. Great review. Great album.
March 6, 2023 @ 9:25 am
Great album, but i do think a more country/roots production would have suited drayton’s songs a lot better that the alt rock sound Sadler likes. Good example is Devil in NOLA, which is a banger. Early favs are Devil in NOLA, Alabama moon, and above my head
jerm pinny ripz
March 6, 2023 @ 9:34 am
Isbell wrote his best songs with Drive by Truckers…
March 6, 2023 @ 1:39 pm
As tacky as a comment like that sounds, I have to agree.
Decoration Day is an underrated masterpiece.
March 7, 2023 @ 6:21 pm
I thought it was considered one of his best? Maybe I just listened to more DBT than his solo stuff. I really like his lead and slide playing from that era but not really up to speed lately.
March 9, 2023 @ 1:47 pm
I think both DBT and Isbell were at their best when they were together. I still think they’re great apart, but together they were untouchable.
March 6, 2023 @ 9:54 am
Been looking forward to this for months – I have to say I’m a little surprised that he chose to release Norfolk Blues as the lead single. I feel like that song is a big sonic outlier on the record, and I went into Twenty On High expecting a very different sound. Not at all disappointed with the result though.
Farley to me evokes a lot of Zach Bryan as well. There’s something about the style of songwriting and the more youthful perspective that brings it all together for me.
March 6, 2023 @ 10:33 am
I am definitely in the smartass camp, though “Best since Southeastern” is very generous. “Best since Nashville Sound” feels closer, but I’d possibly concede “Best since Something More Than Free”.
The album is good, and probably deserves an 8, but it just feels so unoriginal to copy another artist’s sound down to that level. Everyone borrows, but what Farley did here is Greta Van Fleet level imitation. If you’re a big fan of Jason’s, the similarities here are just not subtle, at all. They clobber you from the opening bar in a number of those tracks.
It’s sucks because the songs are well composed and well written, but there’s an elephant in the room – pun intended – in virtually every song.
March 6, 2023 @ 2:28 pm
I agree with you. It is too similar to Jason Isbell for me. If I want to listen to Isbell, I’d just as soon listen to anything before The Nashville Sound.
March 6, 2023 @ 10:58 am
One major difference between Isbell and Farley is Isbell has written some of the best blue-collared anthems of our time, while Farley writes a lot of anti blue-collard songs — this guy hates to work. In his song Blue Collar, he openly whines, “I wonder if I’m living or if I’m just alive” (and that’s one of his most tolerable songs).
Were I live men and women go straight from the mines and fields wearing their dirty workgear and overalls to concerts and sporting events as a badge of honor (long before the viral picture from a UK basketball scrimmage game from this past autumn). I don’t know how Farley’s music will play in the parts and in the country music genre. I makes me a little uncomfortable.
I don’t think this a generational problem. I work with guys half my age that know work is freedom and purpose. I get blue-collared work isn’t for everyone. Then quit and get another job doing something else. It’s easier than ever to get a job in another field.
March 6, 2023 @ 11:14 am
arbeit mach frei, huh?
“this guy hates to work” he says listening to an album the guy… worked to create?
believe it or not, some people consider careers as means to an end and are not defined by them.
March 6, 2023 @ 12:28 pm
You are correct. Being a musician is hard work. I should have phrased it Farley doesn’t like manual work. It’s odd he’s catering to a genre that is mostly blue collar. Unless, country music isn’t his genre.
March 6, 2023 @ 12:37 pm
Dude, I’ve been busting my ass my entire life. On the road working, home just long enough to grab a guitar and be back on the road all weekend playing gigs. I take pride in being a blue collar worker and an independent musician. But at the same time, I hate working. Work is a means to an end. You need money to survive and you get it by working. Being willing to do that is a badge of honor in and of itself. How many country songs talk about enjoying working? Not many. Most of them are bitching about a boss, a job, low wages, etc. Don’t get me wrong, I found my identity in my work for a long time and let my whole life revolve around it. It almost cost me my family. Life isn’t about working, it’s about being with the people you care about. There’s definitely more to life than slaving away for some corporate overlord. That line, “I wonder if I’m living or if I’m just alive” is a great line. He’s just saying that there’s got to be more to life than this.
March 6, 2023 @ 7:24 pm
Maybe this is a difference between Americana vs Country music and I’m out of my wheelhouse. But, I grew up on country music artists like Alabama (Forty Hour Week (For a Livin’)), Alan Jackson (Job Description, Woking Class Hero), Brooks & Dunn (Hard Workin’ Man), and Aaron Tippin (Working Man’s PH. D).
More recently, I love Ronnie Dunn’s “Cost of Livin,'” Jason Isbell’s “God is a Working Man,” and “If It Takes a Lifetime,” and everything by Chris Knight and Rob Leines. Hell, even BJ Barham of American Aquarium is singing “The Harder You Work, The Luckier You Get” these days.
Therefore, I disagree with your statement that most country songs “are bitching about a boss, a job, low wages, etc.” Quite the opposite in my experience.
But, to each their own. And I don’t mind picking up the slack for those who are tired of paying for this bullshit “American Dream (Hard Up)” – as so eloquently sung by Farley.
Work (at least around these parts) isn’t just a means to an end. To a coal miner (my grandfather/ father) or a cattle and ethanol corn farmer (my in-laws) or a former steelworker, their work is an identity/ a skill set that helped build this nation and keep it warm and feed. There’s pride in being in a union/ a fraternity and in accomplishments and providing for one’s family.
March 6, 2023 @ 10:33 pm
We were still building a nation when Country music was popularized. Nowadays, work is just something that we do. Can’t blame Drayton for having the attitude that he does. Unions have been rendered powerless and the masses are employed by faceless corporations that are incentivized to offshore the jobs that they can’t automate. What is there to be proud of anymore?
March 7, 2023 @ 7:22 pm
He did quit. Then he released a record that you’re bitching about like a whiny kid. “Ooh working is fun! I love working for the man!.” Listen to yourself. I’m as blue collar as anyone, chief. I won’t pretend it’s goddamn fun. This record is great. Have fun tearing down someone’s art and sucking the boss man’s teet at work tomorrow. Jesus.
March 7, 2023 @ 10:11 pm
I’m not flexible enough to suck my own teet. Would you kindly do it for me?
March 6, 2023 @ 3:16 pm
This album is… fine. That’s all I can really say. It’s not particularly good and it’s not particularly bad. It’s inoffensive at best. It doesn’t really have anything to say and I wouldn’t classify any of the lyricism as poetic or clever or interesting. The music is pleasant enough I suppose. I’ll probably listen to it once and forget about it. If he wasn’t trying so hard to imitate Isbell’s vocal phrasing I would have probably enjoyed it more. Trigger giving this an 8 is just bizarre to me. It doesn’t leave much room for scoring music that’s actually good. If a 9 is a near masterpiece then how can this be an 8?! But what do I know. On to the next one.
March 6, 2023 @ 3:26 pm
Well, and the first two commenters thought it should be a 9, so it illustrates how all of this stuff is subjective. I thought the writing was pretty excellent, the music was great, but I can also see how some take it as Isbell 2.0 or just not that exciting since the music is more Americana than country. I thought an 8 was warranted.
March 7, 2023 @ 11:23 am
I’d have to agree with both Brandon and Trig here. On my subjective scale, it doesn’t do much for me, it’s not my breed of choice, and I probably won’t revisit it until I’m in a very particular mood.
But it is good for what it is, that’s undeniable. And clearly according to the comments of discerning music fans, it speaks to a lot of people on a deeper level than it does to me.
March 7, 2023 @ 7:19 am
Enjoying this well enough, but it certainly apes Southeastern. When I have it on in the background at work, I do think I am listening to Isbell from 10 years ago. That being said, will be in the rotation for a while.
March 7, 2023 @ 7:31 am
I don’t know, I find myself disappointed in both this album and Wade’s. Both artists have distinctive country voices and both are veered away from that in their debut albums. Saying Farley’s album allows for the country roots of Americana to poke through in places doesn’t seem a compliment to me. Nor does describing it as the best Isbell album since Southwestern. Seems what a artist has previously shown proficiency at should more than poke through occasionally.
While this may have been the artist’s choices, it seems like the production on both these artists albums was steered by the producer instead of the producer enhancing the artist.
March 7, 2023 @ 2:01 pm
Agreed scotty boy! Huge fan of morgan wade and drayton but think they are so much more naturally suited for country than the alt-rock and alt-pop production on their Vaden-produced albums. They’re both pure songwriters and his style of production is stifling the song and the emotions evoked by the lyrics. Love him as a guitarist, not loving him as a producer
March 7, 2023 @ 8:47 am
I like it a lot, because I like Isbell’s work a lot. Touring and playing with a dominant musical personality for years bends your musical personality toward theirs. Just listen to the Dirty Knobs. That having been said the lyrics are great, the voice is great, the playing is great. Stylistically, it’s more Southern California pop Americana than Isbell, and I like that – I get a definite Jackson Browne vibe that I don’t get from Isbell. I won’t be buying this on vinyl but I’ll wear it out in the truck. Thanks for the review – I didn’t know this was out there.
March 7, 2023 @ 8:50 am
OK so I thought that he played with Isbell but doesn’t, it’s just produced by Vaden, which makes the Isbell copy catting really strange. I don’t like it less knowing that, but I respect him less for it. I guess the point of the comment then is the Jackson Browne thing, which I hear more every listen.
March 7, 2023 @ 1:20 pm
Some really solid writing, but I just couldn’t sonically get into this album. I’ll slap Norfolk Blues on a playlist, but the album probably won’t stay in my listening rotation. The Isbill comparisons are pretty apt for my listening. Well written songs, but everything else around it puts me to sleep.
March 7, 2023 @ 4:20 pm
Kinda boring. Isbell is boring as heck to me also so that’s that.
Luceros new album is pure bliss. Do yourselves a favor a give a spin or 2. You’re welcome