Texas singer-songwriter Will Beeley drifted away from making music, but he's back to tell stories on Highways & Heart Attacks, his first album in 40 years.
Highways & Heart Attacks
14 June 2019
Will Beeley opens and closes his new album with breezy tunes that celebrate drifting and storytelling. Those songs, appropriately titled "Been a Drifter" and "Telling Stories", bookend Highways & Heart Attacks, Beeley's first album in 40 years. That's right. 40 years.
Fortunately, Highways & Heart Attacks, coming not-so-hot on the heels of Beeley's 1979 album, Passing Dream, is well worth the wait. Only his third album -- the first was the self-released Gallavatin' in 1971 -- Highways & Heart Attacks distills a lifetime's worth of wisdom and experience into just over 32 minutes.
In "Been a Drifter", Beeley notes various professions and avocations that he's pursued in the course of his lifetime: "a drifter, a hobo, a car salesman, and a tramp." Beeley also points out that it "surprises me from time to time that I haven't been buried." Beeley conspicuously leaves out being a musician, perhaps because he put aside his musical ambitions after the release of Passing Dream to help raise his young children. He eventually became a long-haul trucker, which is still his current job. The Tompkins Square record label surprised Beeley a few years ago when they requested permission to reissue Gallavantin' and Passing Dream. Beeley approved of the reissue plan and a subsequent request from Tompkins Square to record a new album of songs he's written over the years, resulting in Highways & Heart Attacks.
Detailing four decades of life in just over 32 minutes of music could've been a daunting task, but Beeley finds a casual way of doing just that on Highways & Heart Attacks. The album has the feel of a classic singer/songwriter record, with understated but effective musicianship and just the right amount of studio polish to bring out the country feel of Beeley's songs.
Beeley tackles some typical topics here. "Jack Daniels" is fairly self-explanatory, while "Don't Rain on My Parade" and "Help Me Face the Days" are about relationship complications. Beeley's one explicitly topical song is "The Homeless Ain't Just Hoboes Anymore", which Beeley noted recently in a radio interview was written, like many of his songs, slowly over the last 30 years. Sadly, of course, the issue of homelessness is just as relevant now as when Beeley first began writing the song.
Highways & Heart Attacks also offers the soulful and just slightly salacious (in a good way) "Taste of the Good Times" and an affecting ode to parenthood/grandparenthood, "Singin' Lullabyes". Beeley sings gently about singing to his children and then notes how quickly the early parenting years fly by. "We only had one shot to get it right / And that's all we had / And one good shot is all you need to be a mom and a dad" is set of lines nearly any parent will understand.
Beeley tells his stories with a simple eloquence in the songs described so far, but he isn't afraid of getting surreal on your ears. "U.S. 85" is a travelogue toward the southern terminus of the highway "with El Paso on the left and Juarez on the right". Beeley references both Marty Robbin's "El Paso" and Bob Dylan's "Tom Thumb's Blues" in the song, which could easily have been part of the soundtrack to some eerie road movie starring Harry Dean Stanton. Harry Dean could even have sung a verse, probably in Spanish.
Upping the surreal considerably is "It Didn't Feel Like Christmas (And It Sure Wasn't New Year's Yet)". Nearly twice as long as any other song on the album, "It Didn't Feel Like Christmas" tells the sad tale of being physically and emotionally stranded during the holidays, complete with a mid-song interlude in which we hear the narrator check into a Motel 6, where he holes up during a blizzard. It's almost as if Glen Campbell asked Jimmy Webb to write the "Wichita Lineman" of holiday songs. It's a great, odd song, but it's guaranteed to bum out anyone who hears it on your holiday playlist.
Just as you're recovering from "It Didn't Feel Like Christmas," Will Beeley wraps up Highways & Heart Attacks with an ode to his grandfather who loved "Telling Stories". Like his Grandpa, Will Beeley is a gifted storyteller, and we are all fortunate that he decided to tell a few more.