A sublime blend of country, rock and Little Feat-style southern funk. The new album from Nashville singer-songwriter Gwil Owen is an all-round triumph
Release Date: 9th February 2023
Label: Rambler Records
Formats: Vinyl / Download / Streaming
Gwilym Emyr Owen III – Gwil Owen to his friends – has been around for quite some time. Originally from Syracuse, New York, he’s been based in Nashville for the past 40 years and The Road to the Sky is his ninth solo album. And, with its sublime blend of country, straight-ahead rock and the brand of southern white funk that most of us associate with Little Feat, The Road to the Sky is a nailed-on triumph – certainly one of the best things I’ve heard this year so far.
Gwil took his first, tentative, steps in music with The Detonators, a South Carolina band that he put together with his friend and long-time musical co-conspirator, Jeff Finlin. In the late eighties, Gwil moved on to form The Thieves, with whom he made his recording debut, the 1988 album Seduced by Money, before taking the plunge and launching his solo career, the career that he pursues to this day. Those solo adventures have produced a string of excellent albums, starting with Gwil’s 1991 cassette-only debut, Phoenix, and including his acclaimed 2019 offering, Flying Dream, the album that precedes The Road to the Sky.
Gwil has been described as “A Nashville DIY lifer who makes music on his own terms.” His style has often been compared to that of the late, prolific David Olney (a friend and regular collaborator) and Guy Clark and it’s a style that has, over the years, attracted a mightily impressive throng of admirers; the list of luminaries that have covered Gwil’s songs includes the likes of Keith Richards & Levon Helm, Irma Thomas, Toni Price, Kevin Gordon and Little Feat. That’s some list…
The Road To The Sky was produced by Joe McMahan at Flutter & Wow in Nashville, and he’s done a remarkable job. The sound is clean and clear, with each instrument given adequate room to breathe and focus rightly given to Gwil’s clear, melodic vocals. The core band of Gwil (guitar, vocals), Joe McMahan (guitar, lap steel, pedal steel, vocals), Dave Jacques (bass), Bryan Owings (drums) and Tony Crow (keyboards) is supplemented as and when appropriate by additional backing vocalists and some wonderful contributions on vibes (James Westfall), strings (Chris Carmichael) and flute (Jim Hoke) to create sounds that range from the sparse and intimate to the rich and lush, via every stop in between, and the result is a collection of songs that truly offers something for everyone. Oh – and I must make special mention of Shannon MacNally’s divine backing harmonies that really add something special to songs like You Leaning on Me and So Much.
The influence of Bruce Springsteen is clearly evident on opening track, When The Songwriter’s Gone. It’s a lively, fresh tune, peppered with twangy guitar licks and built on a solid foundation of Dave’s bass and Bryan’s drums. Tony’s swirling organ is pitched just right and Gwil’s lyrics – “When the songwriter’s gone, just listen to his songs” – get the message over loud and clear. It’s an opening track that sets a template for the rest of this excellent album.
That lauded Little Feat funk makes its first appearance in Connected, a song that Gwil uses to reinforce the maxim that every Earthly event is, somehow, connected to every other – from the butterfly flapping its wings in China to the little boy walking home to his mother, and beyond. The guitar work – the lick that drives the song along and the blistering solo – is exquisite throughout. That Little Feat feel is retained for You Keep Leaning on Me, particularly whenever the slide guitar enters the fray, and the icing is added to an already delicious cake by those wonderful Shannon MacNally backing harmonies.
The pace slows – just a little – for the anthemic Magic Child. Acoustic guitars prevail and Bryan coaxes some interesting sounds from his drum kit in an intimate, tuneful, optimistic song that is, once again, illuminated by some wonderful guitar licks. Shannon steps up again to add more beautiful harmonies to the “Sometimes so much seems to ride on so little” refrain on So Much, a song that mixes Latin themes with funk and country sentiments, before Joe attracts the spotlight with his pedal steel contributions to Where the West Wind Blows, a reflective country ballad that is, in turn, mellow, reassuring and truly outstanding.
There’s a 1950s feel to the echo-y vocals of Ghost Town, and things get seriously raunchy as the song progresses, and Gwil’s Nashville affiliations are laid bare in the jaunty Change, as he recalls the oft-repeated observation that “Only one thing in world stays the same – and that’s change.” Gwil delivers his lyrics with obvious relish and it’s pretty evident that the band are having a great time too.
In complete contrast, the delightful Heaven in Our Hands is an elegiacal slow ballad, dominated by piano and strings. It’s sad and sweet and not all schmaltzy. Things then start to get a little unsettling, first with the album’s ‘almost’ title track, Sweeping The Road To The Sky, which starts life as a slow, ominous blues before morphing into a stomping rocker, awash with fuzzy guitars and built on top of a strong, heavy drumbeat. Things then get seriously weird for the Tom Waits-recalling Murder, a song that reflects on (hopefully imagined…) youthful misadventure. James Westfall’s vibes and Tony’s piano are the perfect accompaniment to a sinister, yet highly enticing, song.
The Road To The Sky is an excellent album, and it ends on a real high, with the lush, string-laden She Does it With All Our Eyes. With lyrics like “There’s no magic, no sleight of hand, no disguise – She does it with all our eyes” it’s beautiful and magical – exactly the kind of song that anyone could imagine Elvis nailing during his 1968 Comeback Special period. And, to cap it all, the song plays out with a pre-recorded acoustic guitar coda from Gwil’s late friend, David Olney. It’s the perfect ending to a near-perfect album.
Listen to When The Songwriter’s Gone – the album’s opening track – here: