Grady Yates Album Review: A Thousand Horses

When Grady Yates isn’t catching very large bass or bagging quail he’s writing songs. True to his disposition as a naturalist, he writes songs that are very rooted in all things organic…people and their lives, the land, and the loves, losses, liberties, and lawlessness of the inhabitants of that cerebral world that he and his cigar visit on a regular basis.

There’s a certain regard for life portrayed on this cosmic stage to which Texas songwriters adhere. The root of that adherence is in the connection of the soul of its inhabitants with the soil upon and from which those inhabitants play out their roles. In the song “The Soil And The Soul” the protagonist, whose father has died with the weight of drought worry upon him, has laid his father to rest “on his favorite hill when it finally rained…we buried him there so he could see it when it came…” That connection…

The title track is segued via a historical narrative given voice by legendary Texas Music DJ Brett Dillon. It is a recounting of the historical tale that culminated in the final demise of the mighty Comanche Nation in the early fall of 1874 in the Palo Duro Canyon, near present-day Amarillo. Colonel Ranald MacKenzie and the Fourth United States Cavalry engaged in a surprise attack upon the Comanche, sending them scurrying to the rocky cliffs, abandoning their estimated 1400 horses to the canyon floor. The song proceeds to tell the tale of how 1000 of those horses were slaughtered by MacKenzie’s men and that on certain full moon nights the spirits of that spectral herd of 1000 can be seen and heard beneath a Comanche moon as their “hooves pound out a mournful tune” and “you can see their feathered manes flowing in the pale moonlight.” It’s this folkloric take on historical events that makes Americana music great, and Yates brings this delicacy to our table in a splendid presentation. The storied southwest is the sinew of meat and the savor of seasoned broth… history and folklore – sustenance for the body and mind.

Where life is rural, the ground is often considered sacred, and the sacred has undoubtedly been the inspiration for more art than likely anything else. Home, in the majority of cases, is the epitome of all things safe and secure. Yates takes that theme, draws a deep breath of nostalgia, and gracefully exhales the striking story of the family ranch, which he appropriately calls “Sanctuary.” When a father establishes a haven in a peaceful, virtual Eden, and his children grow up there in the safety and comfort of such a place, “Sanctuary” is indeed its name. Grady’s protagonist marries his woman there:

“I met my love long ago, and I asked her to marry

 We did not marry in the church, no, we chose the sanctuary

 Friends and family on the hill that overlooked the valley

Scarlet begonias in her hair beneath the live oak tree…’

The story continues to explain that the rooftops we call progress absorbed all but ten acres of the once sprawling homestead and brings the legacy full circle:

 “Ten acres – all that’s left here, but I won’t ever leave

 My wife she rests in peace beneath the live oak tree.”

A legacy is treasure.

There is a good reason for songwriters of Grady Yates’ stature to exist. Some writers bring little else but their own experiences to the page, baring their souls in a straightforward self-exorcism. Others find their niche in the tongue-in-cheek humor/sarcasm slant or the typical relationship drama and its whiskey cure. Then there are those storytellers of the Louis L’Amour or Zane Grey cut who populate their tales with characters right out of a James Bama painting and landscapes as surreal as a Georgia O’Keeffe. There lies the value of much of this record. From the couplet “Curtains of Rain” and “Townes and Fog” we consider images of the restless and desperate looking at…

“Curtains of rain, I count four from where I stand. Like the skirts of fallen angels sweeping low across the land..” and the prayer that “my tracks get washed away by those curtains of rain.”

From this stark image Grady segues straight into “Townes and Fog”, a dark tale of what is arguably a nightmare or a reality…or a dream, within a dream, within a dream. There is a foreboding to this song that whispers of the dangers of the unknown and unseen and a speedometer stuck at fifty-two “while Townes Van Zandt sang Flying Shoes.” Enough symbolism to force the listener to interpret the meaning – a wise and effective choice. And enough to make one believe Ol’ Grady might just be a closet David Lynch fan.

More could be said about other songs on this fine collection but it’s often best to leave some treats and surprises for the listener to uncover. This review is merely an attempt to describe the landscape and its inhabitants, and to explain why this kind of storytelling needs to enjoyed. It takes us back to a time when stories were everything; when facts and folklore were best buddies. We’re fortunate to have a vast library of music to support and enjoy, but when the mundane and the recycled become irrelevant to our musical and cerebral appetites it is the tales of long ago, of forgotten lives, places, and events – factual or fantastic – that will reel us in. Once again we’re around a campfire with nothing but the sound of crackling embers and a chorus of crickets, maybe a lone coyote soloing in the distance, while a gifted storyteller holds us spellbound with a voice that evokes those magnificent images.

If you’ve ever loved the stripped down, sparse acoustic beauty of Willie’s “Red-Headed Stranger”, you will enjoy the beauty and grit of producer Brady Mosher’s playing and direction. It’s a warm and spot-on production which includes acoustic guitars, mandolin, banjo, resonator guitar, accordion, fiddle and harmonica played by a variety of musicians including the very notable Milo Deering and Kevin Bailey, as well as Grady’s own acoustic guitar work.

This is music for a good reason. It is music of a lasting nature, transcending fads and flavors-of-the-month and completely without pretension. Listening to Grady Yates sing his tales is like hearing, right when you need it most, the welcome and soothing voice of an old friend, telling you in a calming way of his Father’s Sanctuary, or that a six-foot moccasin is slithering by where you lay.

 

~ Jeff Hopson
Jeff resides in Garland, TX and has been in the Lone Star State since September of 1989, when he moved here from his native Tennessee. After three and a half years in Nashville, he channeled the spirit of his upper East Tennessee kinsman, a certain diplomat named Crockett, and stated, “You may all go to hell…I will go to Texas”.  Jeff is a songwriter and performs often in the North Texas region, and has a collection of short fiction in the works.

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