Myron Elkins is only 21 years old but has the voice of a much older fellow. I mean much, much older. Elkins has the gritty, whiskey-soaked leather pipes of someone who has seen and done it all. He growls as much as he sings, which gives the music on his bluesy debut album, Factories, Farms & Amphetamines, a fierce edge. Elkins delivers his observational lyrics about small-town life with the confidence of one who knows what it’s all about, even when he’s really just guessing.
Elkins is part of the latest generation of electric guitar-based country performers who owe more to Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, and Sturgell Simpson than to Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, or Merle Haggard. Sure, he’s aware of earlier traditions. One can hear echoes of past classics in the chuga-chuga of his and his group’s sound. Elkins is accompanied by his touring band on Factories, Farms & Amphetamines: Jake Bartlett (drums), Nathan Johnson (bass), Caleb Stampfler (lead guitar), and Avry Whitaker (guitar). Perhaps that’s the result of Dave Cobb’s production. Despite Elkins’ Michigan roots, there are licks right out of the Allman Brothers’ songbook, ZZ Top’s early days, and other 1970s Southern country rock acts that sweeten the music. But this album sounds fresh rather than retro, as the focus lies on keeping things in the present tense.
The opening track, “Sugartooth”, moves to a groove straight out of Memphis (the Chuck Berry song and the source rhythm to countless Tennessee R&B tunes). Elkins kicks things into high gear before too long as his guitar leaves the main melody and starts to have a mind of its own. By the time he gets to the next song, the title track, the music leaves familiar territory as Elkins and company really start to rock. Factories, farms, and amphetamines now characterize the landscape of rural America, he tells us, and the nasty tone of his guitar and voice lets one know that he’s not happy about it. Elkins is just being honest and offers a picture of what he sees rather than engaging in fantasy fables about bro-country.
The rest of Factories, Farms & Amphetamines follows a similar pattern of one song that’s rhythm-heavy followed by another that’s a guitar monster, although this does oversimplify the mix of styles. Elkins’ guitar does most of the talking, even when he’s singing. Elkins’ overwrought voice makes it difficult to understand what he’s singing about, while his axe sets the tone. For example, on the catchy “Wrong Side of the River”, one cannot be sure what he’s crooning in the chorus. It doesn’t really matter. The guitar captures the singer’s exuberance at being alive despite (or maybe because of) his situation growing up on the poor side of town.
Elkins addresses a familiar set of country tropes from criticizing the phoniness of the music establishment (“Nashville Money”) to male and female stereotypes (“Mr. Breadwinner”, “Good Time Girl”) to how hard it is to get by (“Old Trauma”, “Machine”) without ever getting too deep intellectually. He and his guitar are more interested in expressing emotions than offering lessons on how to live. In a world of know-it-alls, it’s refreshing to hear someone get down and dirty. Elkins lets his guitar do most of the talking, and that’s a good thing to hear.