What I took away from Ken Burns series Country Music, was that there has always been a tension between what the folks on Music Row think people want and what people out of the periphery are actually playing. Burns illustrates how musicians playing a less glossy form of country had to take refuge in Austin or Bakersfield to find their groove.
There is nothing Nashville about Midwestern. Zachary Lucky is a road warrior from Saskatchewan who recorded his fourth album live in the studio to capture the spontaneity and intimacy of a small dance-hall gig out on the prairie. Lucky has a world-weary baritone that reminds me a bit of Warren Zevon. His band provides sympathetic, understated settings for songs about working people and adulting.
Midwestern is primarily an album about coming to terms with responsibilities. The opening track, “There Was A Time When I Used to Roam” sets the tone. Lucky sings about his days of living on the road and how he thought he’d be playing one night stands forever. He sounds wistful for those days and astonished that he willing gave them up. “Rock and Roll Dad” finds Lucky singing about actually liking mundane things like getting the kids off to school and getting to work on time. This being responsibly thing isn’t all that bad. The record closes with “Sometimes I Wonder (How I Got This Far)”. It is the rambler from that opening song looking back in amazement that he’s still around.
I like the way “No Shame In Working Hard” gives dignity to the people doing the jobs that have to be done. He sings about how there’s nothing wrong with swinging a hammer or driving a truck. Lucky sings about blue-collar life in a matter of fact manner. It doesn’t feel like he’s trying to make a point. He’s not being defensive or standing up to coastal elites like his Nashville cousins. He’s just pointing out the obvious, that there is dignity in doing the unsexy work that needs to be done.
“Revelation Blues” is an interesting take on the emerging climate crisis. Lucky sings, “Things keep changing, why the hell are we staring at our phones?” Lucky checks off floods, fires, melting ice caps and poisoned water, then wonders if things might still work out. The chorus is a bit more pessimistic. “I ain’t a believer, but I can’t deign the truth. The end times are coming. I’ve got the Revelation Blues.”
I think Ken Burns would like Midwestern. It’s country music from well outside the industry’s mainstream. It’s stories about real people doing what they have to do, told in with honesty and dignity. There certainly is no shame in that.