Album Review – Kyle Nix’s “Lightning On The Mountain”

The side players of music rarely receive their proper due. There they stand at the edge of the spotlight, hoping for maybe 30 seconds every other song for a solo, and often remain virtually anonymous to most of the crowd, even though they’re commonly the most musically talented individuals on the stage. It’s their job to not be noticed, or to be noticed only briefly. Their service is to the music and the song, and it takes a sense of selflessness to do that job well.

It’s a slightly more enviable diagnosis for fiddle player Kyle Nix of the Turnpike Troubadours. As beloved as Turnpike is, and being a band instead of an outfit behind a solo artist, many fans can rattle off the names of the respective members from memory. You’ve watched them grow up, and they feel more like brothers or friends as opposed to untouchable famous people standing up on stage to entertain you. That’s one of the reasons the Turnpike Troubadours became so beloved.

As some of the fans who witnessed Turnpike’s final shows before they took their indefinite hiatus can attest, Kyle Nix found a second gear in moments that could have lead to an unraveling. Despite not showing much of any propensity or ambition to be the center of attention before, understanding that someone needed to step up, Nix didn’t shy from that responsibility. And with a “next man up” mentality, when Turnpike did eventually falter, he was willing, able, and prepared to keep his friends employed by sliding in front of the reigns, and doing his best.

Don’t come to this record expecting a worthy replacement for Evan Felker or the Turnpike Troubadours, even if the musical lineup that recorded this album is basically Turnpike sans Felker. That’s not the spirit with which the record was written and recorded, and is an unfair expectation to set for the debut album from a guy that spend the first 15-something years of his career as a side player. It may not even be fair to judge it beside the records of seasoned singers and songwriters who’ve had years of head start while Kyle Nix was focused on perfecting his fiddle skills. Kyle Nix is a killer fiddle player. His legacy and contributions are secured in that realm. Anything else he can accomplish is gravy.

Envisioned as a concept record with interludes and elements inspired by the Spaghetti Western sounds of Ennio Morricone, Lightning On The Mountain and Other Short Stories is an ambitious, adventurous, varied, and diverse effort that keeps you on your toes for 17 tracks. Not everything is styled in Spaghetti Western sounds. In fact most of it isn’t. There are ample love songs, and hard-charging country rock songs, and plenty in between. And even though some guitar solos are distinctly Ryan Engleman (Turnpike’s guitarist), and the same for Hank Early on the accordion or steel guitar, Lightning On The Mountain is distinctly a Kyle Nix record, and a country record.

The universal aspect binding the songs together is that everything is based around a story. Since he’s not one of these naturally-tortured souls that must expel demons through songwriting, Kyle Nix’s method here is to deftly interweave words into a compelling narrative with the use of setting, character, and detail, paired with music that emphasizes the passion, the suspense, and the intrigue of the story. Though the work is presented cohesively, each story can be rendered autonomously as its own snippet in time and place.

Though some moments in songs feel a little novice from being penned through method as opposed to deep and moving inspiration, Nix delivers some lines and moments that sink deep. When he sings, “Pretty girls dig graves, but a fool will dig his own,” you feel that, as you do when he sings about about the legacy of his father and grandfather going off to war. His attention to detail in songs aids their ability to stoke the imagination, while his fiddle work is finally allowed to rise to the forefront, whether it’s bowing out the soft sentiments of “Sweet Delta Rose,” or evoking hellfire in “Lightning On The Mountain,” or his spellbinding take on the old standard, “Old Joe Clark.”

Sure, Kyle Nix does not have classically compelling voice, as some will be quick to point out. If he did, we would have heard more of it over the last 13 years. He’s no George Jones. But nobody is, and others have gotten by as singers with much worse. Harping on how Kyle Nix sings is missing the point of this project. The fact that he can sing at all is a bonus, and he holds his own very well on the record.

Again, Lightning On The Mountain is not meant to be a replacement for anything. It’s one of your favorite side players stepping up to the plate to take a swing. There’s going to be some misses and some fouls, especially when he gives you 17 opportunities to scrutinize him. But what’s cool about this record is that he stepped up to the plate at all. It was completely unexpected, and when he does clobber one into the gap or over the wall, you cheer even harder. He’s the underdog, the second fiddle like so many of us, often doing the heavy lifting while someone else takes the lion’s share of the credit.

Amid all the tragedies of the COVID-19 lock down, this record might be one of the most hard hit. Word is there was supposed to be a full tour behind Lightning On The Mountain featuring the boys from the Turnpike Troubadours. Perhaps that will still happen. Perhaps Evan will return when things return to normal, and Turnpike will ride forth once again. Perhaps Even Felker never will return, and Kyle Nix backed by the Turnpike Troubadours band will be as close to the real thing we ever get again.

But regardless of what happens, when you reflect back on the legacy the Turnpike Troubadours left, or your kids do, just like we all do today with those country greats from the past, they will discover this side project from Kyle Nix, enjoy it with an extra vigor because of who it is and what it means, and verify he was one of the coolest fiddle players ever. And perhaps, even something more. Kyle Nix was the guy that stepped up to the plate when the opportunity presented itself, and connected.

1 3/4 Guns Up (7.5/10)

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