Album Review – Jack McKeon – “Talking To Strangers”

#520 and #570.15 (bluegrass, singer/songwriter-inspired Americana on the Country DDS

There are performers, entertainers, and singers who write songs. And then there are songwriters. Jack McKeon is a songwriter, and his elevated command of the craft calls for the calibration of your heart and mind to be open and accepting of advanced concepts on the deeper meaning of life usually reserved for the most talented and revered of the songwriting discipline. Think Jason Isbell, John Moreland, Guy Clark-type territory.

But sometimes, if not often, this higher level of songwriting is met with a secondary or outright careless consideration for the musical accompaniment. For New York State native Jack McKeon’s debut album Talking to Strangers, this is not the case. In a very purposeful effort, McKeon has called upon a cadre of top class bluegrass musicians to bring the sound to his stories. This is a songwriter album, and it’s a bluegrass album.

It’s not that there aren’t any great songs or songwriters in the bluegrass discipline. Of course there are. But writing is usually subordinate to musicianship in the field, just as music is sometimes subordinate in the songwriting field. There aren’t any blazing mandolin runs or fiddle reels on this album. These are still slow and mid-tempo songs indicative of the songwriter world. But the music is distinctly bluegrass.

Talking to Strangers may not distinguish itself as remarkable in the bluegrass world, even though it’s quite well-assembled and performed. But it most certainly is distinguishable in the songwriter realm. It’s not just some of the staggering one-liners McKeon delivers. It’s how he embeds them within stories, settings, and characters that really sell those lines as prophetic, and make you heed them, not just hear them.

“A boy becomes a man when you need a man around,” is the line Jack McKeon delivers in the song “Crooked Teeth” that stops you in your tracks, and it’s not the only one in that song alone. One of McKeon’s specialties is speaking on the dying, decaying, and destruction of things, like the scourge of encroachment and imminent domain in the excellently written song “Highway 29.” This leads into the somewhat similarly themed track “Last Slice of Heaven.”

“Every field is rows of houses just waiting to be built. Ain’t no such thing as empty space ’till you need something to fill,” McKeon ponders. A sense that the future is only the end of beautiful things comes into play in multiple songs, including “Paler Shade of Blue” and the final song, “Love at the End of the World.”

But the album is not all heartbreaking profundities upon the merciless march of time. “Hard Headed” includes just enough dry, self-deprecating humor to keep things interesting. It’s astounding to think this is a debut album. Jack McKeon clearly has the acuity to be crafting these kinds of songs for perhaps many years to come. The bluegrass aspect makes it that much more cool, even if he doesn’t stick to it in future endeavors.

Let’s also tip a hat to the bluegrass pickers on this album, including Ashby Frank on mandolin, fiddle player Christian Sedelmyer, 2023 IBMA-winning Resophonic Guitar Player of Year Justin Moses on dobro and banjo, and 2023 IBMA Bass Player of the Year Vickie Vaughn. But it’s the writing of Jack McKeon and where it takes you that makes Talking to Strangers remarkable and worthy of your time.


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