Before long, Strickland may not be just the Ozarks’ storyteller, but America’s. Balanced on Barbed Wire, both in its production and moxie, represents a strong step in that direction.
When he's not making great beef jerky, he's making great music. Lyal Strickland is a farmer by trade and by utmost inner passion. Born and raised in the Missouri Ozarks, his brand of folk not only comes from the heart, but he also weaves the individualized theme of consciousness of the farm, as well as in the small town where he had grown up, and ultimately, the rest of the world sweeping about and throughout him. This empathetic, world-weary introspection had deservedly placed the singer-songwriter on the map with 2007’s acoustic album, Wellfed & High Strung, and a second release in 2009's So Many Incidents. Jump forward another six years and, finally, you have 2015’s Balanced on Barbed Wire, a brand new musical offering detailing the small town life in Buffalo from Strickland’s own “first-person folk” perspective, now set to a finer tune.
The number one trait displayed by the album that listeners of Strickland’s previous work will pick up on immediately is the increased production quality. Everything sounds crisper and leaves a more resounding mark on the listener out of stringent clarity, perhaps due to the help of co-producer Jeff Smith. Though the primary focus is still rightfully set on Strickland’s hearty, world-worn vocals and his trusty acoustic guitar work, he is also joined by a winning set of featured musicians on the record, adding an extra few layers of lush instrumentation to the overarching work. These musicians, just as Strickland does, represent the strong musical history of the Ozarks, each reigning from the area: including the late, great Lou Whitney of the Morells and Skeletons, the Hillbenders’ Mark Cassidy, and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ David Painter, Steve Cash, and John Dillon.
With the help of the aforementioned musicians, Strickland crafts a more vibrant instrumental panoramic, introducing touches of fiddle, mandolin, banjo, organ, and harmonica to the mix, and even brushes of electric guitar tinging certain spots with a bit of a rock edge. “Not For Me” makes for a fine example of Strickland expanding his musical horizons, delving into more of the Southern rock and blues that the fairly broad Americana classification also encompasses alongside his traditional folk influences. What this makes for is a more accessible album for the casual listener to become introduced to Strickland’s work. Balanced on Barbed Wire is more musically vast while maintaining Strickland's same individualistic brand of personal storytelling, which keeps him in the game as far as expanding his fanbase without alienating those who are already dedicated to his work goes.
The increased production value of Balanced on Barbed Wire also means that it comes with a slew of potential radio hits. Strickland, as it stands, is already prime virtuoso of the catchy hook and infectious, influential lyric. Opening track “Every Time It Starts To Rain” maintains a country and rock-tinged folk melody surrounding financial hardships on the farm, whereas hard work-centric “Misery and Mischief Prone” envelops itself in a rollicking folk tune with tinges of organ courtesy of Joe Terry, offering it a poppy, gospel feel on the bridge. “Gettin’ By” is slow-grooving swamp-hop number that proudly encompasses Strickland’s pride as a self-made man, featuring a mean harmonica from Marcus Chatman. Everything, however, truly comes to a head on “Some People Change”, where Strickland shares the cause behind the deaths of his friends while exemplifying that some people deserve a change in their life, with “(What If We Could) Save the World” also proving to be an inspiring, infectious number in its own right.
Balanced on Barbed Wire is Strickland’s strongest, most varied work to date. Fans of Americana of all types will find something to listen to here, and if they were to listen with enough intent, the pieces of Strickland’s own life that the album is comprised of will begin to move them yet. Before long, Strickland may not be just the Ozarks’ storyteller, but America’s. Balanced on Barbed Wire, both in its production and moxie, represents a strong step in that direction.