Critics love Appalachian musician Gillian Welch. After four solid albums, years of touring, and her work on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, Welch frequently receives praise for her Americana efforts. But there was a time, when she first started out, that critics lampooned the Manhattan-born, Los Angeles-bred, and Boston-educated lass as inauthentic and even somewhat of a usurper because of her lack of genealogical and geographical Southern roots. Welch contributes vocals on Jordan Chassan’s first album in more than 12 years. Like Welch, the Montclair, New Jersey native also sings Southern-style country folk music, but he’s no more or less authentic than Welch is. Although Chassan currently lives and records at his home outside Nashville, the Tennessee location referred to in the title of his latest disc East of Bristol, West of Knoxville exists mostly in his head. He’s not really trying to fool anyone. He doesn’t affect a fake accent or anything. Chassan just imagines a musical space where he thinks his songs would fit, and “East of Bristol…” seems sufficiently descriptive for his simple and often absurd tunes full of homespun values.
The most striking aspect of this disc is its sonic roominess. Chassan plays a number of different instruments including acoustic and electric guitars, Baldwin and Wurlitzer organs, electric bass, mandolin, and spoons. Jellyroll Johnson provides harmonica accompaniment on most tracks, as does drummer Larry Atamanuik. Chassan recorded most of the songs on a vintage two-track analog recorder at a studio he built in a barn. The songs sound spacious, an effect that the relatively easy pace of many of the tunes enhances.
Lyrically the songs concern life, love, and desire. Chassan plays with the words in a lighthearted manner that recalls the works of Roger Miller and John Prine, singing in a blithe voice, “Maybe I’m lucky but I don’t know / People always ask me everywhere I go / Is it hard work being a fool? / I make it look so easy as a general rule”. Many of the songs express positive sentiments, a refreshing if difficult task. Anyone can write a blues song. Complaining is easy. Chassan knows this and usually takes it the other way. “Sometimes things just don’t work out” he sings, but quickly continues: “Sometimes things just do / Things just do / Things just do.” He sounds happily startled by his good fortune at finding the right girl to love.
Chassan even sounds chirpy on the sad songs. He sings the title words to “Cheater Cheater Cheater”, a tune about a girl who’s been unfaithful to him every since the wedding night as if he’s a kid going “liar, liar, pants on fire”. There’s no venom or hurt in his voice. Some songs have more serious concerns, but Chassan lays off the heavy sentiments for more heartfelt responses. “Oh there is nothing wrong with me / That love sweet love won’t cure,” he sings on “That Destination”, a song about death. He expresses his belief in the power of love on almost every cut on the disc.
The most peculiar song musically is the one on which Welch accompanies Chassan, “Wound Up Way Too Tight”. The track features a chiming Wurlitzer playing the melody. The ringing organ would sound more at home at a roller rink or carnival than as a lead instrument on a country tune. As the title suggests, the song’s narrator is crazy. When Welch and Chassan join together in vocal harmony to croon “I want my mind back feeling all right”, the vocal inflections make it clear that the narrator has already lost sanity. It’s a strange tune, one sure to end up on some future Weirdsville or Dr. Demento compilation. Welch and Chassan sing it deadpan, as if it’s normal to be nuts, and maybe it is. The song acknowledges that we live in dark times. Maybe being mad is the sanest response. Chassan’s living in his own private Tennessee, but it’s nice of him to let us into his world.