Scottish singer/songwriter Norrie McCulloch gained attention outside of his Glasgow stamping ground with the summer 2014 release of his debut album Old Lovers Junkyard, which fired critics’ enthusiasm from its opening track. For the follow-up, he wrote songs during a near-nine hundred mile US road trip from Austin, Texas to Nashville, Tennessee. Along the way, he took a short detour to visit Dido Cemetery in Fort Worth, where the troubled but renowned country songwriter Townes Van Zandt is interred in his family’s plot.
On These Mountain Blues, Norrie is again joined by Glasgow indiepop stalwarts Dave McGowan (Teenage Fanclub/Belle and Sebastian), Stuart Kidd (The Wellgreen/Pearlfishers/BMX Bandits) and Marco Rea (The Wellgreen/Euros Childs band) to create a second slice of his brand of Scottish Americana. An especially welcome touch in these times of pervading digital recording technology is that the songs were recorded to analogue tape, behind the ancient doors of a 15th century building in historic Stirling, rather than in the sterile confines of a studio. Meanwhile, a tight three-day recording schedule ensured that there would be no time for over-production or unnecessary knob-twiddling.
Perhaps inspired by his trip across southern states, an almost hypnotic, driving guitar riff draws the listener into Norrie’s landscape as the warmly reflective Calico Days finds long-remembered old friends reuniting and respectfully sharing their stories, while Marco adds sparse yet effective background piano. The similar in theme Pass by My Door is upbeat musically but contrasts the preceding song by looking back on a long-lost relationship and the laughter that was once shared.
The collection’s title track poignantly records Norrie’s pilgrimage to Townes Van Zandt’s graveside, recalling the voice on the breeze that called him to embark on the journey, the painting that he left behind and the likely anticlimactic absence of celebration of the man’s life. “There were no flowers,” he observes. “There was just a stone and five words to call your body home,” a reference to Van Zandt’s song title, To Live is to Fly, which is etched on the memorial.
Performed solo on guitar and harmonica, Black Dust is the closest song here to traditional British folk music. The sorrowful lyrics mourn the grandfather he never knew due to the appalling conditions he endured as he toiled to his death in the suffocating coalfields of Scotland’s west coast. It’s a horrible reminder of the awful fate of the many thousands of men who unwittingly sacrificed their lives to lung diseases like coal workers’ pneumoconiosis as they tried to earn a wage in Ayrshire’s 14,000 mines.
The music shifts back to Americana influences for the possibly autobiographic New Joke, with pulsing bass, piano and Dave’s pedal steel guitar accompanying Norrie’s subtle Scottish twang. While that song looks back to a perhaps regretful time, we’re taken from the new to the old with The Old Room, a longing to return to a happier time that’s gone by. The piano-led Heart’s Got to be in the Right Place closes the album with a look at a family that is wrenched apart following the separation of the parents. As with many of the songs, its subject matter is universal and easily relatable, giving much to contemplate.
Norrie McCulloch has looked to himself to produce These Mountain Blues, an album made up of mainly reflective, sombre songs that come very much from the heart and leave a feeling of having peered into the songwriter’s life. While most of the songs are a cross-pollination of traditional Scottish folk and Americana, there is less reliance on pedal steel guitar than on his previous recording, bringing the feel of the collection a little closer to the British side of the Atlantic.
Review by: Roy Spencer
These Mountain Blues is released on 26th February 2016 via Black Dust Records
Photo Credit: Iain Thompson