From the fertile Outlaw country ground that comprises the hills and hollers of Boone County, West Virginia comes a homespun, but inspired and deftly-written insight into the American experience called No Place Lower Than High. Composed and performed by the virtual unknown singer and songwriter Justin Payne, this no budget project cut in a 100-year-old coal camp house is rough-hewn, scratchy, and sometimes hard to listen to through the production shortcomings. But hiding under all of the coal dust is a soul-bearing, bare-chested, and unfettered account of one man’s dreams and demons more than worthy of listening in on.
When I use the term “Outlaw” to describe Justin Payne, I mean the Merriam-Webster version, the Waylon Jennings circa 1974 version, with the half time bass beat holding everything together and the Telecaster phase guitar turned high. This album is Outlaw in every sense of the classic terminology, but it’s not just tone, bravado, and style like the stereotypical Waylon or Paycheck interpretation of Outlaw. This album has the Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark legacy of the Outlaw era in it too with intense, weighty songwriting lurking within these tracks, and a troubadour’s heart hiding beneath Payne’s brambly exterior.
When it comes to the songwriting on No Place Lower Than High, Justin Payne measures high on all gradients. Vulnerable, honest, insightful, and personal, Payne aims right for the heart and sinks his lyrical dagger true. Justin doesn’t undertake in character generation on this album. This isn’t a work of folklore or fiction. Payne’s narratives are ripped right out of his own experiences in those Boone County hills, and the truth behind the words of these songs is what makes them so gripping.
What holds No Place Lower Than High back is simply the way it sounds in certain places. Though in the same regard, the style is one of the album’s strengths. Foggy, slightly muted, unmastered, and employing some very strange tones in places, especially in the drums that sound at times electronic (whether they are or not), this is the unfortunate assessment that will probably keep certain listeners at arm’s length. But generally, Justin has the arrangements and even the tones and styles spot on; it’s just the production level leaves a layer of film on the project that passive music fans might not be able to listen through. Conversely this haziness is also what makes the album sound classic and cool, and there’s a lot of accidental genius and endearing simplicity in the way this album was cut and glued together. A song like “The Fall” came out perfect, and would be criminal to tinker with.
Strip away all the music, and simply on paper this album has so many great compositions. “The Man I Should Be,” “The Fall,” “Life Is A Country Song,” “Papers,” “Sunday Song”—they just keep coming. The only song that seems unfortunate to have made the cut is “Your Kind.” Destined to be taken the wrong way by certain listeners, it falls into more of the stereotype of what one might expect from this album, instead of what one actually gets from the other nine songs. It’s just very divisive in its tone, where the rest of No Place Lower Than High barrels you over with the unexpected poetry and wisdom.
Justin Payne is no crooner, but similar to the production of the album, you root for him, and he surprises you with his vocal adroitness, and sense of timing and dynamics, making the most of his given attributes and authentic drawl.
It wouldn’t be fair to not dock No Place Lower Than High for the flaws of the project illuminated above, but you get the sense with this inaugural album that there is something very strong here, something extremely promising that just needs a little polishing, while at the same time, taking great care not to compromise what makes Justin Payne so cool and authentic, and greatly enjoying what he’s already done with this album.
No Place Lower Than High is a superb underground gem sifted out of a mess of coal rubble, in an era when such discoveries seem much too far between.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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