Album Review – Shawn Hess – “Wild Onion”

Imagine yourself driving down old historic Route 66 in a vintage sedan or panel truck, cruising past pastel-colored motor inns with neon signs and rooms fashioned to look like teepees, and a restaurant across the street in the shape of a sombrero hat—the cactus peaking out from the sand, and the coyotes calling out from the distance.

If you can put yourself in that place, and you reach down to flip on the radio, the songs of Shawn Hess’s new album Wild Onion is what you might hear coming out. A splendidly-sparse and delicately-crafted classic country album, Wild Onion sends you back to the late ’50s and early ’60s when a sweet innocence still persisted in country music, and it was heard via glistening juke boxes, the Grand Ole Opry, or on turntable vinyl.

The feat this album pulls off reprising the past sounds of country is remarkable and noteworthy, but not entirely novel these days, nor especially difficult with so many others laboring in this vintage pursuit. It’s really the writing of Shawn Hess and how he takes some of the most simple and true notions of love, and blends them with classic sounds that makes Wild Onion unique.

The story of Shawn Hess is a distinctly Western one. From Laramie, Wyoming, he’s best known in town for slinging drinks and entertaining folks at the town’s Ruffed Up Duck Saloon—a small package liquor joint they’ve fashioned into a bar and music venue. Hess grew up in Cheyenne, but something about Laramie felt more like home. He only leaves to go on tour, or to stand at the edge of town and let the vastness of the Wyoming sky to stoke his muse.

But the songs of Wild Onion are not about wide open spaces where the buffalo roam, or high mountains and wild rivers, or rodeos and campfires. These songs definitely belong out West, but they feel more defined further south in New Mexico along the Will Rogers Highway, at least for this album. That might have to do with Hess traveling and touring through the Southwest previously.

But the songs of Wild Onion aren’t about the Southwest either. Similar to some of the most timeless country classics, Hess finds simple and universal experiences in love, and crafts them into little morsels of life like roadside curios. Finding yourself in a relationship that always seems to seesaw between good and bad is what the opening song “‘Til It Ain’t” is all about. The second song “Yesterday’s Coffee” is about a love that feels just right.

“When You Call” calls to mind a scenario we’ve all probably found ourselves in at one time or another. “You’re his when you’re fine, you’re just mine when you’re not,” Hess sings in his aged, patina tone. “You don’t miss what you had quite enough to give up what you’ve got.”

Just like the original sounds of country music always seem eternal in the hearts of true fans no matter the current trends, so it is for the trials and tribulations of love that ring true for every generation, no matter the era. Many albums touch on either the sound or the sentiment of classic country, often in fleeting moments. Shawn Hess marries these two eternal truths throughout Wild Onion.

You won’t be converting your Walker Hayes-listening friends to the other side with Wild Onion. But you’ll find it just about right for a long drive through the countryside, or a quiet evening away from the of the shrill droning of modern reality. It’s the trip far away and back in time that makes Wild Onion so enjoyable.


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