Don’t worry your pretty little heads country fans, the proud tradition of poet laureates from the great state of Texas has been conferred to yet another generation in the form of Vincent Neil Emerson. If you remember watching that iconic scene from Heartworn Highways with Texans Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle sitting at Guy Clark’s kitchen table swapping songs, and wondered if a similar magic would ever be captured again, you should watch this guy with Colter Wall and others, or hear what Rodney Crowell has to say himself.
“If he grows on the public the way he’s grown on me, it’s possible young Vincent will plant the flag of his [songwriting] forebears firmly in the consciousness of a whole new generation,” Rodney says. Of course Crowell might be a little bias at this point, since he produced this self-titled record. But not before he saw something in Vincent Neil that was similar to the chemistry found in his contemporaries back in the 70’s.
This new album is a combination of simple compositions that convey sweet little vignettes from Texas life, and deep reverberative works and leave one shaken to the core from the impact of their stories. This combination makes Vincent Neil Emerson easy to warm to, but lasting in effect—suitable to soundtrack to your Saturday evening soiree under the stars, or to sift through for Song of the Year consideration.
There’s little happiness to be found in Vincent’s deeply unburdening song “Learning To Drown” about the loss of his father to suicide, and of his own failures and shortcomings placing hurdles in front of the realization of his dreams. Still, a song like this can feel so comforting in the way it lifts the worries off our own souls, contextualizes our problems and sorrows, and lets us know none of us are insulated from life’s tragedies and challenges, or too weak to overcome them.
Though now quartered in Fort Worth, Vincent Neil Emerson was raised in Van Zandt County in East Texas by a single mother of part Native American Choctaw-Apache descent. That means he can compose and sing “The Ballad of the Choctaw-Apache” about the flooding of native lands for a reservoir with authority, and without White Knight baggage, conveyed authentically, while Rodney Crowell’s ear for arrangement clothes the effort in the right mood.
Crowell has never been very good at sticking close to country when calling the shots behind the control board. After all, he produced all those early Rosanne Cash records that were only country mostly due to her last name. But the roots are always represented, and the tastefulness of the approach to this Vincent Neil Emerson album makes it hard to quibble with, even if country fans may have hoped for a bit more twang.
The Native American flute was a bold call on “The Ballad of the Choctaw-Apache,” but it was also the right one. The Gaelic flute combined with the Old World fiddle part makes “White Horse Saloon” sound more appropriate for a Boston pub that an Austin honky-tonk, but whatever. You swing for the fences, you’re going to miss some, and the song still works in its own strange way.
For what will be considered a songwriter record, there really is a sizable measure of light and airy material here not necessarily looking to change the world or the listener’s perspective, but to instill a sense of warmth through music. Was Rodney Crowell’s “Bluebird Wine” particularly prophetic? No, but it kicked. And when you’re writing all of your own songs like Vincent is doing here, you can’t turn in emotional haymakers one after the other, even if you wanted to.
Like all those old Texas songwriters—including Jerry Jeff Walker whose memory is evoked in “High on Gettin’ By”—you have moments to let loose, and moments to look back and reflect, with Vincent’s leisurely delivery releasing a pleasing mood, resulting in a favorable experience you’re likely to return for frequently.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8.5/10)
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