Willi Carlisle is a folk singer from the American South who pens literate stories about rural life and traditions with a contemporary edge. His songs address everything from opiate addiction to churchgoing, being a kid to being a parent to having no children, two-headed cows, illiterate women, and sleeping under bridges. In other words, Carlisle sensitively observes the world and its harlequin inhabitants from multiple perspectives and offers witness in the form of song. The singer-songwriter preaches empathy even as he judges himself and others for not living up to their dreams and desires.
Nine of the ten songs are three-to-four-minute ditties sung over traditional-style strings (guitar, banjo, pedal style, dulcimer, mandolin), sometimes with button box and harmonica accompaniment. It’s mostly just Carlisle and producer Darrell Scott doing the playing. Carlisle croons in a clear voice layered with dust. He clearly articulates the words and emphasizes the important ones. The details matter. He also lets the syllables slide into each other to express emotions.
The individual cuts are not linked conceptually. They are only connected through Carlisle’s personality, which falls somewhere between aw shucks and fuck that (not literally). “I didn’t intend to make a record with so much death, suicide, apocalypse, and addiction,” Carlisle wrote in the album’s liner notes. But he also notes that there are present joys, bird songs, and babies. Nobody knows what the future will bring.
Willi Carlisle’s artistry lies in how he deploys everyday language. He uses ordinary verbiage to show how common the feelings of alienation and loneliness are and what we do to combat these sensations, like indulging in drugs and sex. The particulars of misbehavior are framed by his characters’ personal confessions. They declare, “I don’t want to hit rock bottom, just to see how deep it goes”, “I’m always gonna sing before I know the song”, “I am here for all the grief that I can stand”, and other boastful, self-effacing sentiments. The first-person protagonists may be life’s losers, but they are proud of their suffering.
The final track is a seven-plus minute spoken word narration about a dope seller, a corrupt sheriff, and the lure of easy cash. “The Money Grows on Tree” is Carlisle’s embellished tale of outlaws David Mac and Sheriff Ralph Baker based on Mac’s firsthand accounts. The songwriter changes the ending for dramatic effect. This is folkloric in intendent, like those tales of Jesse James and Machine Gun Kelly, no documentary. Carlisle recites the tale without his own instrumental additions, just the sound of Scott on the back porch banjo and a Tennessee rainstorm. This creates just the right touch of suspense.
The philosophy behind Critterland presumes we are all just part of the ecology where nothing ever lasts. Yet everything gets transformed. That can be people, bad habits, wealth, and more. From the perspective of something like a god, we all may just be a bunch of possums, scrounging and scratching our existence out of the detritus. Willi Carlisle’s art suggestively reminds us of our place in the animal kingdom as we are just critters doing the best we can.