For those in the know Between The Moon and The Midwest by Austin Lucas is one of the finest albums released this year. It’s an album that tugs in two directions. There are chunks of tough country music and then there’s a shimmering, almost psychedelic sheen to several of the songs. Sound familiar? Well when the album was released back in February, several reviewers compared it to Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, in particular with the song Turtles All The Way Down. Good company for sure but in the end it’s a shorthand way of saying that both artists are at the forefront of reclaiming country music from the plethora of truck’n’beer’n’broads crap that’s been masquerading as country over the past few years.
Based in Indiana Lucas had a punk rock background before edging into his country sound on albums such as Somebody Loves You and A New Home In The Old World. His 2013 album Stay Reckless was considered by many to be his best but it coincided with a collision of personal and business problems that almost derailed him. Amidst a failing marriage and bouts of anxiety and depression his record label dropped him saying they didn’t hear any singles on the album. Cast adrift Lucas could have sank but instead he’s back, leaner and fitter and with a new label who believe in him and in the record. Between The Moon and The Midwest, recorded with Joey Kneiser from Glossary and featuring appearances from John Moreland, Lydia Loveless and Cory Branan is a tremendous slice of modern country and Lucas is touring the UK over the next few weeks promoting the album. An opportunity then for Blabber’n’Smoke to talk to the man about the album and its torturous conception. First of all we asked him about those comparisons to Sturgill Simpson.
I think there are several comparisons that can be made considering that we’re both legitimate country artists who are trying to push the boundaries of what the genre can be. Although it may be worth mentioning that his releasing Metamodern Sounds very nearly derailed the making of Between The Moon and The Midwest. I got pretty worried when I first heard Turtles All The Way Down reckoning that he’d already done the thing that I was in the middle of working on. However, in the end I decided to allow it to hearten me. Firstly, it showed that there was interest in this style of music. Secondly, his wasn’t a concept album. Nor was it psychedelic all the way through. Merely one song and a couple of small hints at psychedelia scattered throughout. Therefore, I felt I was still innovating the genre in a way that he hadn’t exactly done with his album.
While people have honed in on the psychedelic aspect of the album at heart there’s a lot of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings in the album. Are they big influences on you?
Of course they are. In my mind, they are two of the greatest and most innovative artists from that period in country music or any other genre. These are two guys who pushed more boundaries than anyone else and who did things their own way. In many ways, they’re role models for me and who and what I want to be and how I want to do things.
Some of the characters reappear throughout the album, is it a concept album, were you trying to tell a story?
Yeah, I actually came up with the concept for the album under the influence of a very special brownie, in the desert while on tour with Willie Nelson in 2011. It’s a love story about 3 best friends and how they miscommunicate, hurt each other and eventually ruin each other’s lives.
You open the album with Unbroken Hearts singing, ““I’ve been told to walk away nearly every time I make an album. I hear there’s no good men left, everyone in Nashville’s deaf, sad songs are a thing of the past.” I read that actually happened to you when you took the album to your previous label. The album’s been out for about eight month’s now so are there people out there wanting to hear “sad songs?”
There are absolutely people who want to hear sad songs and I am glad to say that I think there will always be people of quality who are interested in real songs. Truthfully though, since we’re on the subject, the song isn’t an indictment of the world at large, or even music row. It’s simply something that I wrote because I find the large scale music industry overall to be sort of unnecessary. There are many artists who court mainstream success but I’m not one of them. I exist in a world where that’s never been a desire or even an option. I’ve always existed on the fringes of the music world. Even within the scenes that I play in I’ve generally been an outsider. As a result I’m no stranger to the fact that, there has always been and always will be a place for independent artists, people who make extensive bodies of work for nothing more than the need to do so. My records or career may not ever have big money behind them. But quality music always finds fans and since I’m not interested in being a pop star music row is something that exists outside of my career equation. To be direct in a way that I haven’t been before, the words to that song in particular were only meant to shine a small amount of light on exactly that. The idea that these traditions of great song writing and storytelling would die after all these years is ludicrous. I think most of us know that, at least my friends and I know that. So I wrote it as a tongue in cheek battle cry of sorts. Nothing more, nothing less.
You’re on a new record label, Last Chance, who have a deal with At The Helm in the UK. Are you able to say anything about them in terms of releasing albums that some major labels don’t see as hit material. After all, there is something of a resurgence in a more traditional country and songwriter form at present.
There is no question that they release a lot of stuff which would not be considered to be viable from a commercial standpoint. Certainly they are benefactors of the arts and in that way, I’m very proud to be a part of their team.
The album and its predecessor Stay Reckless were recorded when you were going through a rocky patch, your marriage ending and such. I hope it’s not glib of me to ask if you subscribe to the notion that “break up” albums bring out the best in an artist?
I have no idea. I think that turmoil is well documented as being extremely fertile artistic soil though I’d rather not hypothesize on whether one must be in an aggravated or depressed state of being in order to make great art. To me, I think it’s simply a matter of staying hungry and being interested in getting better at your craft that should propel one to ever greater musical endeavours.
You’re touring here with The Dreaming Spires who will be your backing band as well as playing their own support slot. It’s an interesting prospect and I was wondering what your thoughts are on what they’ll add to your sound.
I met them last year in the States during Americana fest through our shared UK label At The Helm. We got along very well and I quickly grew to respect them musically as well as personally. I have no question that they’ll have an effect on my sound and that’s exciting to me. The beauty of playing with new and different people is that freshness that you can get on old songs. Every new set of ears hears things in a different way and therefore, you can quickly find yourself in new musical territory. I’m excited to explore what those talented guys are going to show me about of my own songs.
Before we go can you tell us anything about any future plans?
Just gotta get back into the studio and work on another album. Hopefully that will happen in the next half a year or so.
Well, thanks and the best of luck with the tour.
Austin Lucas with The Dreaming Spires tour the UK and Ireland starting in Oxford on the 15th October with a Glasgow date at Broadcast on the 18th October. All dates are here.