The modern archetype of the musical troubadour, Austin Lucas is a songwriter’s songwriter. With a voice that falls between God-given and refined by years of training, it bleeds tradition and adds gravitas to his words (which have straddled a blurred line between Americana and country during his last decade recording solo material). The son of a bluegrass musician, Lucas, who, in an interview with CMT Edge, once called country music “the purest and most beautiful form of American music”, turns his full attention to the classic genre on his latest, Between the Moon and the Midwest.
After 2013’s label-polished Stay Reckless, which featured Tennessee’s Glossary as his backing band, Lucas tapped the group’s Joey Kneiser the following year to produce Between the Moon and the Midwest, a collection of tales told by those with broken hearts and proud souls. Drawing from personal experience that predated Stay Reckless, Lucas channels his internal tumult into a countrified love triangle of cold months and dark hours. Written in 2011, the ten finished songs on Between the Moon and the Midwest have remained shelved for almost two years following Lucas’s departure from label New West.
Perhaps the wait will prove fortuitous for Lucas, given the recent interest in traditional country music rejuvenated by artists such as Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. Like Simpson’s recent song cycle, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Lucas himself spins a concept album—albeit one predicated on story lines and characters rather than overarching themes—with Between the Moon and the Midwest. Featuring the hapless musician Richard and his milquetoast foil, William, the two friends are torn apart by their love for firebrand Kristie Rae, one whose “Purty little fists still hurt when the gloves came off”. Paced like a novel, the wide-eyed naïveté of “Ain’t We Free” quickly succumbs to the reality of “Wrong Side of the Dream”, a plaintive duet with alt-country songstress Lydia Loveless, who voices the lines of Kristie Rae throughout the album.
Without spoiling the story arc, genre tropes such as vindictiveness, infidelity, and atonement surface in a manner heretofore unpresented on a country album. Under Kneiser’s helm, pedal steel and Telecaster twang rightfully account for much of the sound on Between the Moon and the Midwest, eliciting echoing harmonies from Lucas and Loveless while layering on a healthy swath of piano and reverb, as on the droning “Next to You”. Here, Kneiser focuses on the vastness that falls between the album’s title poles, with the album’s characters left to meander in their own narrowly-prescribed worlds.
Given Between the Moon and the Midwest‘s lyrical cohesiveness, Lucas is wise enough to provide songs with room to stand on their own as singles: with its edge-of-midnight atmosphere, prescient opener “Unbroken Hearts” stands as a belated rebuke of Lucas’s former label, with Lucas singing, “I hear there’s no good men left / Everyone in Nashville’s deaf / Sad songs are a thing of the past”. Without naming names, “Wrong Side of the Dream” prefaces the emotionally raw ballad “Pray for Rain”, which gives way to the barroom stomp of “The Flame”.
There are no beaches or tailgates to be found on Between the Moon and the Midwest, just erudite songwriting, studied musicianship, and non-native production that deliver the plain truth of the human condition — just as country music should.