Album Review – Noel McKay – “Blue Blue Blue”

Let’s say you need a knickknack shelf for your keepsakes, or a night stand for the spare bedroom. You could stop into the local big box store, or order one on the internet and have it at your door the next day, delivered in a box, ready for you to assemble. You maybe could even find one that’s been made to look like it’s an old antique or handmade, faux weathered or rough-hewn.

But there’s a difference between an item like that, and unearthing something that’s truly one of a kind, crafted with love and care that you buy from the artisan themselves at a local bazaar, or you discover in some dusty antique store off a farm to market road in the Midwest. 100 Ikea shelves (some assembly required) will never equal the value and character of one of these treasure finds with a story to tell.

The songs of Noel McKay, they’re like those one of a kind items, carefully crafted with their dovetailed joints and beveled edges, and proudly engraved with a maker’s mark. They’re well-loved, and presented to the world without commercial concern, and more for the memories they hold, or that they will soon impart.

Guy Clark recognized that eye for craftsmanship and detail in Noel McKay when he first heard Noel perform with his brother Hollin in The McKay Brothers around 1993. Noel and Guy soon became friends, and built a guitar together. A one of a kind. Then they set out to co-write some songs. One called “El Coyote” ended up on Guy’s final album My Favorite Picture of You. Another called “Flying and Falling” ended up on this, Noel McKay’s latest record, Blue Blue Blue. The guitar Noel and Guy built together was used in the recording of this album. The memories are baked right in.

Yes, Noel McKay is more than just Mr. Brennen Leigh and a Christmas baby. Though he’s been more than happy to cede the spotlight to his better half for portions of his career, anyone paying attention has known Noel is Brennen Leigh’s secret weapon, and essential collaborator on their duo projects.

Blue Blue Blue is filled with songs about folks you would expect to bump into while taking a cross country trip on two lane highways through small towns, including some locales that are named checked in the opening song “50 Loneliest Places in the Nation,” reminding you of all the clever notions of a Roger Miller tune.

Only a tenured wordsmith could turn such as mundane subject matter as “Get A Bag of Ice” into something that brings into focus such rich memories, or write a song about writing songs that actually works as well as the witty “You Oughta Write a Song About That.”

The songs of Noel McKay take you on a journey into the past and far away, yet deliver you somewhere that feels incredibly familiar. They’re wormholes to a simpler time and place when everything was conceived before high definition, like the old men jawing away as old men do in “When This Town Was Cool,” or the Peterbilt jockey in “Open All Night,” or the poor soul nursing a broken heart in “Blue, Blue, Blue.” It’s not exactly Nashville country, or Texas country, or California country. It’s Route 66 country—classic and composed, with music that’s a bit sparse, but plenty ample.

Despite the time and setting that sets you back, these songs still can still feel relevant. “Sleeping in My Car” might be about Noel McKay’s own experiences with semi-homelessness as a struggling musician in Austin in the late 90’s. But as so many young adults these days either choose or are forced to bed down in their vehicular transportation from dumb choices or from chasing their dreams, it’s as timely as it ever was.

Some performers approach music like they’re stamping out widgets on a requisite schedule—just like issuing the updated version of that Ikea shelf, now in a nightingale shade. But taking his cues from the master craftsmen of old, Noel McKay takes his time to get it right. He knows this is a quality, not quantity business. Otherwise, your works may end up in the refuse bin sooner than later like so many particleboard prefabricated housewares.


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