In the beginning, country music was considered to primarily be the jurisdiction of the men and belles of the Southern United States, the cowboys of the West, and those dwelling in the rural portions outside of the city. Anyone else who wanted to partake or even perform country music was more than welcome, but it would always be from the outside looking in.
Then as the family farm was foreclosed on, and folks went looking for work in the cities, rural-dwelling people brought their stories and their music to the factory lines. Bobby Bare sang “Detroit City” in 1963, and soon country music became the domain of the blue collar worker and the rust belt as well.
With a voice like a vehicle with holes rusted through the sheet metal and a muffler dragging the street, Ryan Curtis reels you in with his stories of a worn and weary life in Michigan and the Midwest. Reminiscent of Tom Waits or maybe Ben Nichols in tone, but with his own take on raspy exacerbations about life’s trials and troubles, the 10 songs of Rust Belt Broken Heart come with that “lived it” feel that may not be pretty, but dammit it’s real. You feel the cold cutting to your bones, and the sorrow building in your heart.
Ryan Curtis is mostly known for his work with the band Curtis/Sutton & The Scavengers and The Weary Times, and for a combination of what is mostly rock, blues, soul, with some country mixed in. But Rust Belt Broken Heart is a hard doubling down on Upper Midwest country, with steel guitar all over the place, and songs more fit for the honky tonk than the nightclub.
What’s remarkable here is how Ryan’s first solo album in over a decade of making music delving deep into the rust belt world comes as he moved away from the region years ago, and now makes his home in Boise, Idaho. He started out to simply make a solo EP when he noticed all the songs he wanted to sing were about his time in the Upper Midwest, including one song he wrote some 12 years ago. Sometimes it takes a bit of detachment and reflection to see the true nature of things. That is how Rust Belt Broken Heart was born.
The album opens up with Ryan Curtis waking up in Rawlings, Wyoming with the rain hitting his windshield as he tries to run away from a broken heart, and takes the listener on a rather harrowing trip to a time and place less rosy than the present. Even when the album feigns turning towards the glass being half full like on the song “Beautiful Day,” it’s only because a bad lover has finally left him.
Though Ryan’s voice and perspective is the cohesive element to this record, he does find some creative latitude in the otherwise country album. One of the best songs from the record “All Alone” utilizes a little rockabilly attitude, while a chorus wafting in and out is indicative of vintage Countrypolitan. Later he finds a little Motor City soul in “350 Miles.” A couple of the compositions do feel a bit hastily written, but others expose a deeply poetic heart and wisdom beneath the rough exterior, like “She Said.”
Of course the voice of Ryan Curtis is what you’ll either love, tolerate, or downright hate here. But there’s nothing he can do about that. All he can do is field a crop of quality songs, and search for the proper audience that will appreciate them. Like a fixer upper, or a deal in the Auto Trader, some may have to look beyond the rough exterior to see the value. But to others, there is character, or dare we even say beauty in the rust, and that’s exactly what they’re after.
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