The single greatest band in country music at the moment has just released one of the single greatest records you will hear in country music in the last few years. And as much as you may assess this opinion as fandom overriding objectivity, or outright overwrought hyperbole, wait until you give this thing a spin for yourself.
To be frank, I’m a little gobsmacked. You’re so used to your favorite artists beginning to trail off whenever they reach what feels like a peak, whether it happens slowly or precipitously. With Mike and the Moonpies, they found what we all believed was a high water mark both live and in the studio a few years ago, and yet somehow they still figure out ways to outdo themselves.
With their last record, the Austin-based honky tonk band threw us all for a loop when they surprise released a rather composed and understated album in Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold recorded at Abbey Road in England, right as they were burning down stages as one of the most blazing live country bands around. It was the exactly the type of change of speed to catch us all off guard and keep us on our toes, while adding an entirely new dimension to their music.
But that posed the question, where do they go next? How do you keep things fresh and moving forward? Well in the case of One To Grow On, it’s heading back to their roots, which for Mike and the Moonpies still means moving forward, and doubling down on their strengths. They know how to not take themselves too seriously, how to embrace the cliché nature of country music with a keen sense of self-awareness, and be a true blue honky tonk band for the everyman.
We all got excited by the debut song from the new album called “Paycheck to Paycheck” when it was released a few weeks ago, but a few felt it was a bit light in the substance department. And even listening through One To Grow On once or twice, you still may not pick up completely on what’s happening here. It may be a stretch to characterize it as a concept record, but nonetheless, One To Grow On is a cohesive work in the respect that the already stellar tracks comprise something greater than the sum of their parts.
One To Grow On follows a central character throughout its nine tracks as he perseveres through life’s struggles, and celebrates its triumphs. Though this character is not given a name, his identity and narrative as a blue-collar dude just trying to get through life are revealed as the album unfolds. This takes songs that are already high in entertainment value, and turns them into a reverent tribute to those out there turning wrenches, working machines, setting trusses, and sweating and slaving every day to make shit work for the rest of us. And what better band to do this than one that truly embodies the blue-collar approach to country music themselves like the Moonpies.
What’s the burden of many “concept records” or song cycles that try to tell a deeper story? They often fail to seed an band’s repertoire with songs that work autonomously, aside from maybe one or two of them. That was kind of a problem with their last record Cheap Silver. With One To Grow On, it’s maybe only one or two songs that don’t work on their own. Actually strike that, they pretty much all work individually. What you have is one blazing anthem after another that leave your face rocked, and your heart full.
No need to bellyache about only getting nine tracks here. In a deficit of songs compared to most records, Mike and the Moonpies still deliver way more enjoyment and diversion than your average album, along with ample variety. Though the lion’s share of the record are these up-tempo, honky tonk, good-timing after work anthems, “Hour On The Hour” will really clobber you with the feels, “Brother” gooses the imagination with its involved story, and “The Vein” and “Social Drinkers” add a good change of pace to set up the ending, the epic “Burn Out.”
This band’s just got too much talent. Like the Turnpike Troubadours, they’re a supergroup encapsulated in the same original outfit. Steel guitar player Zach Moulton really steps out on this album, and puts on a proverbial clinic, adding steel guitar elements that influence the melody and rhythm in ways we’ve never heard before. Omar Oyoque is a wizard on the bass. Catlin Rutherford comes in with those killer twin guitar lines. Even drummer Kyle Ponder gets his licks in, laying down the groove that’s so essential to the making the song “Growing Pains” kick.
And of course Mike himself, what can you say? Writing this record with the help of his Moonpie compadres, he continues to defy conventional wisdom about what a country music superstar can be. Grounded and composed, up there on stage he’s both one of us, and 100 feet tall. He’s a true honky tonk hero.
You can tell this album was a team effort, with auxiliary Moonpie member and keyboardist John Carbone contributing too, as well as Shooter Jennings and members of the Quaker City Nighthawks on the final track, Zac Wilkerson, and Alice Spencer and Kelley Mickwee from Shinyribs. Under the of direction of producer Adam Odor, there’s not a single note out-of-place, not a single decision to second guess here. Mike and the Moonpies have created their own little musical universe to dwell in, and it’s undeniably cool, and distinctly country.
It’s easy to hyperventilate and get keyed-up when you have songs this consistently infectious. What’s hard is to cram this much surface gratification into record that seems to speak to something deeper at the same time. One To Grow On isn’t just an album for us. It’s an album about us. Like a modern country music version of Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” it broaches something a bit more profound when taken as a collective work. It canonizes those that are commonly forgotten, and reminds you why the blue-collar worker is so critical to the world—the sacrifices they make, the shit they take—in a way that imparts their existence with an element of soul. And there’s just about nothing more country music than that.
Two Guns Way Up (10/10)
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