There’s a specific brand of folk and country that digs deep into the soul of what it means to be human. If you look back far enough, you could probably draw a line from our best modern singer-songwriters all the way back to the aching sorrow and sweet surrender of the American folk tradition. Such is the enduring power that lies at the heart of this country’s music.
The best of these artists both pay homage to the sounds and artists of yesteryear while gracefully treading their own path through the genre. Artists such as Doug Paisley and Sam Amidon simultaneously have the deep knowledge, playing chops, and experimental fervor to take on the great weight of folk history and reinterpret it for their time.
While Amidon plays on the fringes of what’s possible in folk, singing traditionals on top of new, modern arrangements, Paisley’s songwriting seems timeless, suspended in the great swath of musical time between the 60s and now. Bits and pieces emerge from the great ocean of music that lives underneath his songs, adding color and depth to his heartworn lyrics.
Doug Paisley’s new album “Starter Home” is another emergence from that great ocean of Americana sound. Playing on the edges of folk and country, it summons up the sort of heartfelt, elegiac songwriting that is painfully absent from today’s charts. At times Paisley manages to sound like he’s channeling John Prine, and in other moments it feels as if he’s been spinning Gordon Lightfoot records all day. Somewhere in between you’ll find Paisley and the warm timbre of his voice lounging around in the sunny, 70s folk haze of this album.
Paisley has never sounded so much like John Prine as on “Mister Wrong.” Not only does his voice achieve that aching twang that Prine has perfected over his career, Paisley’s songwriting also slides so easily into the catchy, colloquial spaces that Prine is the unabashed master of. As the song balances between country pop and folk singalong, the lyrics feel like they could have been stolen right out of Prine’s notebook as he was sleeping:
“Got up out of bed, fell down on my head, heard the words you said, as I hit the floor / how I won’t amount to much, everything I touch, turns to such and such, I don’t love you anymore.”
Even with the morose lyricism of the song, there’s an upbeat strum that accompanies it, lending a playfulness to the misery, which, incidentally, is something that Prine does better than anyone.
“No Way to Know,” on the other hand, lands somewhere between Prine and Lightfoot. Using classic elements such a beautiful string section that seems to have been siphoned right out of late 60s, early 70s AM folk stations, Paisley finds his own throwback sound and injects a world-weary lyricism into it. Like Lightfoot so famously did on “If You Could Read My Mind,” the narrator of the song takes on an almost fatalistic air of acceptance and elegiac wisdom:
“It’s all been learned and forgotten / Buried deep within / There’s no way to know”
As the song goes on, Paisley dives deeper into the theme of impermanence, of not knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow, or even an hour from now. Like in his other songs, he finds that line between sorrow and beatific acceptance, even digging up a tinge of beauty in the pain of being human, expressed by the upbeat, sparkling instrumental break that serves as a reminder of that, even in a world of uncertainty, there is a righteous way to approach it.
“I look out my window / There’s so many ways it could go / There’s no way to know”
By this point in his career, Paisley has built up quite the cast of supporting characters. Fellow Canadian singer-songwriter Jennifer Castle lends her vocals to “Starter Home,” joining an esteemed list of collaborators including Joan Shelley and Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Castle’s spectral vocals at the end of “Waiting” serve as the perfect accompaniment to Paisley’s raspy timbre, adding even more shades of longing that color the song.
On the last track, Paisley demonstrates his ability to draw a thematic arc across “Starter Home.” “Shadows” recycles the instrumental break from “No Way to Know” into a full song, transforming it into upbeat number that serves as the literal shadow of the other song. “We’re just shadows chasing after time,” he sings near the end, finding that choices, time, and life paths are just as effervescent and hard to grasp as we are. There really is no way to know.