It’s not often that someone whose Mail slot processes thirty-plus CDs per month opens a package, hits ‘play,’ and feels his jaw hit his feet. Not often at all. Reviewers who’ve done what they do for a material period of time become jaded. It’s true. Call it a cynical byproduct of volume, the detritus of promoters emailing to declare how wonderfully magnificent a perceived artiste on their proprietary roster must be.
Jaded as hell, that’s me. And you’d be well within your rights to wonder and even ask why, if jaded is an expected outcome, a guy like me keeps doing what he does.
I’d answer that more than fair question. I’d tell you that for all the dreck the mailman drops off, all the hours spent listening to the banal and worthless, there are moments of transcendence which in their unexpected immediacy take my soul places it’s always known existed but has very seldom seen.
And saying all of that, right now today as you read this, I’d be talking about this debut record from Cyrus James titled Molly & The Devil. It’s been a long, long time since something has set me back on my heels the way this record has. I’ve played it in the truck. Played in the barn. In the office. Hell, I’ve pulled the truck into the back yard and spun this through the Battlewagon’s speakers while ribeyes and shrimp and onions and peppers were roasting on the fire pit.
And it’s one I won’t ever stop listening to. Records like this are the reason I got into the reviewing gig to begin with. That this one’s a debut is as much a surprise as the range and genius its breadth and horizons encompass. It’s flat-out a great record, top to bottom.
And yet nothing about it makes a lick of sense.
Open up the packet from the mailbox, you see a stunning piece of cover art. Tattooed man in what might as well be a Confederate general’s hat, but the guy’s sleeveless and his hands on a wooden table grasp revolvers straight out of a novel from Zane Grey or maybe the great L’Amour. The tableau is familiar, yet foreign; the pieces work but they don’t make sense together. Think Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in ‘Tombstone.’ But played as the Johnny Utah character from ‘Point Break.’
Yeah. Makes no sense, right?
Except, somehow, well, it actually sort of works.
Open up the jacket, and the inside sleeves show a double-layered gunbelt with every loop filled. And the name ‘CYRUS JAMES’ stenciled in the leather between the rows of hollow points. Again, the dichotomy. The old and the new, the familiar and the cutting-edge. All mashed together.
You open up those sleeves and you see two things. First, of course, is the record itself. Second is a shock these days: Lyrics. Lyrics and credits for every song. If there’s an anomaly in an iTunes world, Lordy, that’s it right there. Generally there are two kinds of musicians these days – the performers writing singles as standalone artifices, and the artists still making albums with stories to tell. But the latter often cannot afford any longer to compile legitimate albums with the info hardcore musicphiles crave. Somehow James pulled it off.
Cyrus James’ music is like nothing that is common today. It’s intricate in ways that Top 40 can’t fathom, professionally played and produced but with a burning edge that seeps down in the marrow of a listener’s soul. The histrionics here aren’t for show; rather, they are calculated and targeted and ultimately powerful. And they fire out of the chute with the album’s first cut, “Headin’ Out,” led off by the pedal steel of Kim Deschamps (Cowboy Junkies, Charlie Robison, Blue Rodeo, etc and so on ad nauseum). When’s the last time you heard a steel sit in for what counts as a lead guitar? But it’s not a Jake or Tommy Hooker showcase, welcome as that would be. Rather, the steel winds up leading while setting the pace for a wall of intricate sound comprised of a Hammond B3, a bass, and a resonator guitar. Harmony vocals on top are just the icing on a masterfully crafted aural cake. So much going on here it’s hard to keep track, difficult to understand just what exactly you’re hearing. All behind a lyric that makes it all make sense.
Thumb down a diesel on the side of the road
Cause the walkin’ gets old when you’re walkin’ alone
I gave up every single thing I had ‘cept this guitar
And a worn out pair of boots
That you couldn’t fill even if you tried
Tears that wouldn’t fall even if you cried
A phone you shouldn’t call ‘cause you know I’m too far gone
I’m long gone
Powerful stuff, and that’s just the leadoff batter. Keep going, you’ll find twin pistols and a bad man whose world is in need of a comeuppance. Love gone wrong, love gone right, and a sense of country music’s worth riven by modern dalliances yet comfortably ensconced in the warmth of a soul’s hearth fire.
It’s that simple, while reasserting that the simplest among us can be the most complex.
It’s powerful, while recognizing that power is not contingent upon ringing Celine Dion vocals.
It’s art, top to bottom. That’s what it is. Just pure art.
The guest appearance by Jason Boland on “Lickity Split” adds homespun authenticity, but only because it builds on the heartfelt and soul-wrung foundation of “One Country Song.”
Songwriters this nuanced and powerful and effective don’t come along every day. They’re not ever supposed to materialize this fully formed on a debut record. That breaks all the rules.
But rule-breaking is something James apparently does quite well. Molly & The Devil is a seasoned record, an accomplished recording, and a powerful accompaniment to any life in the process of being lived well.
Perhaps James’ roots play a role. His family goes back to old Virginia, over two centuries ago. The same land that birthed Bobby Lee and Stonewall Jackson and, more currently, esteemed and powerful songwriter Randy Thompson. Out of those Virginia forests and hills a birthright was forged, and from its headwaters came Cyrus’ grandfather, a man named Freddie Goodheart. Legend, that’s what Freddie was; played with all the great ones over the years. (You can learn more about Freddie from a firsthand account right HERE) Ralph Stanley. Lightnin’ Hopkins. Don Reno, Red Smiley, Vassar Clements. Old Freddie got around. And at his knee, young Cyrus James learned to love music and more importantly its roots and its origins. All of that learning is on display throughout Molly & The Devil. It’s fresh and new, but it’s old and tested and true. It’s refreshing and invigorating, but it’s haunted.
Perhaps that’s Cyrus’ life itself in a nutshell. He’s traveled broadly and lived in numerous locales. In many respects he’s followed the life trail blazed by Louis L’Amour. And like that paragon of Western authors, James has learned much along the trail. He’s dabbled, he’s observed, he’s worked, and he’s lived in places many of us would have chosen to forego. But he’s learned from all of them, and the lessons take root in the foundations of the music of Cyrus James.
If you’re tired of the Red Dirt retread bullshit on its own merits, this record is for you. An astonishingly refreshing reminder of just how broad a glorious range music is capable of riding. And if you’re just a fan of the unique and powerful? Molly & The Devil is definitely for you. What James unleashes and rides with full control is refreshing, as astonishing, and as unique as Texas herself. The man’s got it figured out.
More info and purchasing options at www.cyrusjamesmusic.com
~ Dave Pilot
Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs. When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline. When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas. Visit Dave Pilot on Facebook.
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