Rootsy Americana combo, The Pawn Shop Saints, reappraise Trumpland and offer empathy and praise.
Release Date: 11th December 2020
Label: DollyRocker Records
Formats: CD / download / stream
Fronted by singer-songwriter Jeb Barry, The Pawn Shop Saints are a rootsy Americana combo from New England’s Berkshire Hills. Their influences include Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt and their sound is melodic yet sparse and highly lyrical.
A couple of years ago, Jeb wrote a string of songs whilst traveling around the Kentucky and Tennessee sections of the Appalachian Mountains. He’d discovered the plethora of small towns that lie just off the interstates and took the opportunity to reappraise his inherited judgement of the people that inhabit those towns. What he found was that this wasn’t just brain-absent Trumpland. These were hard-working, proud, ordinary people, doing their level best to cope with life’s difficulties The result of this reappraisal, and the songs that emerged, is Ordinary Folks, the excellent new album from The Pawn Shop Saints.
Make no mistake, the songs we have here are exceptional. The lyrics are thoughtful and drive straight to the point. They’re also highly evocative. Close your eyes and you find yourself walking those same small-town streets that provided the inspiration for the songs. The band’s trademark sparse instrumentation gives extra focus to the lyrics, without losing any of the inherent tunefulness of the songs. The backing of acoustic guitars, subtle bass and light-handed percussion (occasionally enhanced by some wonderfully twangy electric guitar licks) is really all that’s needed.
The songs deal with the realities and challenges that are faced in peoples’ lives. Not just in rural America, but also here in the UK, as well as just about everywhere else in the world.
Taking it from the top, we hear about the decline of the Kentucky coal mining industry and its societal impact (You Don’t Know The Cumberland), the boredom of retirement (Old Men, New Trucks), the chilling (possibly callous) reaction to civic emergency (Body in the River); the over-simplicity of the stereotypical liberal view of trailer dwellers (Southern Mansions), harrowing loneliness (New Year’s Eve, Somewhere In The Midwest). There’s dustbowl poverty (Ain’t No Mama Here), a person’s inability to adjust to society’s changing perceptions of once acceptable habits and behaviour (Pack A Day), and how music provides a sanctuary for the young (Lynyrd Skynyrd.) It’s all incredibly powerful.
And let’s not forget the music. The Pawn Shop Saints are Jeb Barry on vocals and guitar, Michael O’Neill on guitar, mandolin and vocals, Chris Sampson on bass and Josh Pisano on drums. Together they play some relaxed, accomplished and perfectly balanced tunes that sweeten the sometimes harsh messages in the lyrics and turn a set of social observations into a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience. Ordinary Folks is indeed an album that will be enjoyed for years to come. It may, just possibly, go a small way to healing some of the rifts that have opened in American and British, society over the past four years. At least for those that take the trouble to seek it out.
Watch Jeb Barry singing You Don’t Know the Cumberland here: