Ten years ago, a Texan three-piece band created a sprawling odyssey of an album, uniting religious beliefs, personal loss and lyrical beauty under the majesty of America’s largest state. A double-sided concept album, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, released in 2001 by Lift To Experience, became a critical darling and a cult phenomenon, its reputation and mystique only growing as the years passed. Its scope, ambition and soaring splendour made it a record quite unlike any other released that year, and its lasting appeal speaks to the unique creativity of its crafters. A shame, then, that it would be the only album the group ever released, splitting up somewhat acrimoniously before any meaningful touring could spread the word further.
An even greater shame is that it’s been ten years since we last heard music from Josh T. Pearson, who was then fronting Lift To Experience. His début solo record Last of the Country Gentlemen, released in March of this year, is the only meaningful product in the intervening ten years, and his incandescent combination of spectral guitar playing with pained vocal lines has been absent for too long.
Pearson, a Texan raised in the Christian tradition (his father, who was in and out of his life, was a Pentecostal preacher), is a fitting torch-bearer for country music in an era where its purest form – that of the man and his guitar baring his soul to all – has largely slipped from collective consciousness. Long gone are the heydays of Willie Nelson, longer still those of Hank Williams or George Jones. Johnny Cash, perhaps the most active country star of the last decade, passed away, leaving a magical output but a gaping hole in the genre.
With his impassioned delivery and penchant for all-black attire, Pearson certainly fits the bill on paper, and although it would be foolish to compare him to the legends of country after just one solo record, there’s a similarity it’s tough to ignore.
County Gentlemen may be a solo début, but it draws on a wealth of experience and emotion: at 36, Pearson’s life history and tribulations are far more detailed and longer than most other artists releasing their first album. At over ten minutes, several of his songs are longer too.
Often relying on just the haunting resonance of his acoustic guitar and the breathy, pained vocals he makes so moving, Pearson is unafraid to tell the whole story. Themes run through his long, but deeply engaging record and its songs – religion, self-medication, loss, catharsis, confession – and weave extraordinarily nuanced stories. How much of them are true, we’ll probably never find out, but the passion and deep sorrow with which they are sung means that even cynics will struggle to avoid the album’s absorbing humanity.
‘Thou Art Loosed’ and ‘Drive Her Out!’, which bookend the seven-track LP, are by far the shortest songs, at just six minutes combined, but the other five are really what make the album such a wonderful piece of music. The piercing lamentations of the standout ‘Honeymoon’s Great! Wish You Were Her’ and the self-damnation of ‘Sweetheart I Ain’t Your Christ’ reflect the deep sorrow which fills much of the record, both filled with poetic observations and immaculately played guitar melodies, some of which are so anguished they alone could make you cry.
Country Gentlemen is probably the only album this year which will feature ten-minute, stripped-bare country songs, and Pearson the only musician who could make them listenable: as a result, the record is compulsive, gripping and moving. In listening to these tracks, we feel like we are truly communing with the soul of the man, watching on with a mixture of utter sympathy and morbid fascination as he unflinchingly bares his deepest regrets, his most closely-held fears. You cannot really listen to Country Gentlemen‘s songs individually – or at least if you do, the impact is greatly lessened – but play the entire fifty-something minutes in order and you’ll notice a new lyrical gem each time. Of course, this expansive style may work against Country Gentlemen commercially, but artistically it shapes a unique, deeply absorbing sound which none could replicate: every word feels necessary, and there is not a moment where a song’s length is contrived. Instead, we get drawn so deeply into each track it’s a wonder we’re not a quivering wreck by the end of most of them.
When I first listened to Last of the Country Gentlemen, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Upon repeated listens, however – after re-discovering the album some months after its release – it has really connected with me, its tales of heartache and regret sung with such fragility it’s as if they might break. They never do, but no-one conveys this much melancholy, without a hint of melodrama, as well as Pearson.
Pearson has said that recording the album was incredibly emotionally painful, and it’s not hard to hear why. Listening to it time and again, we not only engage with this pain, we feel it in our very bones as it courses out of the Texan’s guitar and off his tongue. We all find music cathartic in some respect, but to hear a man’s catharsis so starkly bared on record makes for a superb LP with an emotional depth which most would think undiscoverable.
If you’ve ever loved and lost, struggled and hurt, wished and regretted, listen to Last of the Country Gentlemen. Several times. Because this is one of the best albums of the year.