The Nelson Brothers – Migrant Tales
Absolute – 20 April 2018
Lest anyone be confused, first up let’s just clarify that The Nelson Brothers are not the American twin sons of a well-known rock and roll star, rather, we are talking siblings, Simon and Steve Nelson, originally hailing from Stafford, but whose musical history is, to say the least, eclectic.
Initially influenced at home by their father’s collection of mainly American country music, in their late teens, they were introduced to the folk music of the US, Canada and UK. Following time in the mid-1970s spent busking in Amsterdam and Cornwall, a twelve-month residency in Bermuda saw their exposure to the less commercial side of traditional Irish music by way of the likes of Christy Moore, Planxty and Paul Brady. They undertook various solo projects in the 1980s, during which time both continued writing. This eventually resulted in a record deal and the release of their first album Homegrown in 1993 and saw them perform with a range of roots and international country artists. Indeed interest in them was sparked by prominent American songwriter/publicist Robert John Jones, and time was spent writing in Tucson and demoing material in Nashville. Two more albums followed.
All of the above and more have clearly had an influence on the musical styles present on Migrant Songs, their fourth studio release. Whilst not a concept album in the accepted sense, there is, nevertheless, a common seam running throughout, that of the Irish people and their descendants living outside of Ireland, with the songs relating to their exodus from the home country. Given their family history, the brothers’ great, great grandparents, having survived the Famine, moved to Stafford in the 1850s, the pair seems well-placed to address this subject through their own music.
The songs on this very personal album delve into this ancestry, examining their connections with those who preceded them, their boyhood hunger for adventure and their sojourns into the American heartland. Musically, the palette is one that might be described as ‘eclectic roots music’, the sound-paints used being informed by elements such as country, folk, blues, jazz and Americana, all of which are held together by Steve’s full-bodied vocals and some very fine guitar playing by Simon.
Being brought up to believe that honesty is the best policy, time for a confession. When I initially loaded this CD and began listening to the first track, I did wonder whether I had received a mis-pressing, and that what I actually had was an un-released Johnny Cash circa American III or IV gem, such was its similarity to the output on those albums, (compliment intended). The Ramblin’ Man presented here is neither the version written in 1973 by The Allman Brothers, nor that of Hank Williams, written in 1951, but their own, self-penned salute to those restless, rambling heirs, both past and present, of Kerouac’s On The Road dream, and it is certainly a cracking opener. On the second track, whilst their maternal grandfather’s name was indeed Corcoran and several of his relatives emigrated to the USA, Billy Corcoran is a fictitious account of one of them emigrating to the US, the gentle lilt of the song showcasing Steve’s rich vocal delivery to great effect.
Two songs on the album are informed by books. My Prairie Rose, is prompted in part by the writing of Willa Cather in My Antonia, the story of an immigrant woman’s life on the Nebraskan plains, seen through the eyes of her childhood friend, Jim; a girl who not only captured his imagination long ago, but who haunts him still. The narrative provided by the lyrics captures this bittersweet memory, whilst the penny whistle introduces an Irish/Celtic element.
Clear Blue Prairie Sky is, again, partly inspired by literature, Bad Land:An American Romance, Jonathan Raban‘s research into settlement in Montana in the early 20th century in which innumerable settlers, many of them immigrants, went west to make their fortune and build a civilization on the prairie, only to see it collapse within little more than a decade. The song is their take on the allure and fear of the harsh territory that was the backdrop to the ruination of these pioneers.
A song about mountain life, Long Way Down, whose inspiration came from the murder ballad Tom Dooley, chugs along with guitar and keyboards to the fore, one can imagine that live, the final guitar solo, which here fades out all too quickly, will be allowed full rein. The expressive Dark In The Heart, in which the open spaces of sky and desert, long stretches of highway and lonesome prairies are explored in a somewhat melancholic way, ‘It’s dark in the heart of the lonely’, features some fine pedal steel guitar from guest Al Perkins, (Flying Burrito Brothers, Souther-Hillman-Furay Band, plus so much more) with vocals at times sounding very reminiscent of Tom Waits.
With the thoughtful Hobo Child, a paean for migrants everywhere, drawing on Lost Highway written and recorded by blind country singer-songwriter Leon Payne in 1948, and made famous by Hank Wiliams, and Jesus On The Road, a song imagining a journey to the Southwest of the US, following in the footsteps of the Gram Parsons, whilst wandering the streets of a cold winter’s day in London, these two vignettes embody the compositional strength inherent in their writing.
The album ends with two love songs. My Love And I depicts the pain of separation and features guest vocals from Lorraine King, with lyrics which are derived from The Water Is Wide, the 17th-century Scottish folk song, whilst album closer, Auburn Girl relates to hometown love
‘I’ve crossed the line one too many times
but I swear I’ll always find her standing there
by the cross of stone on the road that leads me home
an auburn girl with autumn in her hair’
The Nelson Brothers are undeniably very fine songwriters and musicians. The songs on this album are a wonderful synergy of thoughtful lyrics, accomplished music and resonant vocals, and reflect the many influences that they have been fortunate to experience over the years.
Migrant Tales leads the listener on a thoroughly enjoyable and evocative musical trip, it would be foolish not to get on board and share in their journey.
Order it here: https://www.nelsonbrothers.co.uk/migrant-tales.html