Phil Cook’s been keeping himself busy over the course of the last several years, expanding his parameters from Eau Claire, Wisconsin to his home environs of Durham, North Carolina, and working with a wealth of musical talent who inhabit the terrain in-between. Indeed, Cook’s credits have appeared on albums by the Blind Boys of Alabama, Hiss Golden Messenger, Matthew E. White, Amy Ray, and Alice Gerrard, among the many. Given that extensive workload, it’s amazing that he was able to find time to do an album of his own. Fortunately, the multi-tasker in him must have prevailed, because sure enough, Southland Mission arrives fully-formed and bearing all indication that Cook was completely dedicated to his purpose.
Not that he was alone in his mission, Southland or otherwise. Cook co-produced the album with his brother Brad Cook and engineer Jon Ashley (the War on Drugs, Dawes, Zac Brown Band, Avett Brothers) and then enlisted such notables as Justin Vernon, Matt McCaughan, Frazey Ford, and Matt Smith, among the many, to lend a musical assist. Happily, the arrangements are kept simple and without fuss, making Southland Mission an unabashed set of rural revelry. It’s exactly what one would expect of a musician who’s laboured so devotedly in the heartland and made his own mark in the process.
The album kicks off on an upbeat note with “Ain’t It Sweet”, a song that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early ’70s Grateful Dead record, mostly due to its laid back populist sentiments. However, Cook himself points to his cover of Charlie Parr’s “1922” as his favorite song on the set, noting that, “When I hear Charlie Parr sing his ‘1922 Blues’ it feels like the gathering headwaters of the Mississippi River charging their way to New Orleans! When I sing ‘1922’, it only seems fair to make it sound the way Charlie’s version makes me feel — destined, invincible and free.”
The listener will likely feel the same way. Happily then, the rest of the songs retain that rustic feel, from the down home designs of “Belong” to the freewheeling ramble of “Great Tide” and “Belong.” Midway through, Cook tries his hand at some rural blues, best expressed in the two songs that flow from one into one another, “Sitting on a Fence Too Long” and “Lowly Road”. Notably, Cook doesn’t cast his mood too low, and by the time the album wraps with the gospel, like the rumble of “Time to Wake Up” and the slow ramble of its two closers “Anybody Else” and “Gone”, it’s apparent the ease of his delivery is unabated. Consequently, Southland Mission succeeds on all fronts, creating anticipation for more yet to come. If in fact, he can find the time.