Larry Jon Wilson
Larry Jon Wilson
Label: Drag City
Chances are you’ve found and are continuing to read this internet publication because you are, to some degree, a giant music nerd. As I’m one myself, I understand the strange phenomenon that some of us go through, where we sink a tenacious grip on a cult artist whom we believe we’ve started following way ahead of the curve. There’s a sad kind of pride found in being the first in your social circle to hype a Roky Erickson or, for you beginners, a Syd Barrett. This is no different from the usual Pitchfork-run-smash-and-grab knife-chase that indie rock on the internet has become. Everyone wants to be the first on the hot new artist tip; it takes a special breed of us to get all hot and bothered over an artist who’s been out there for decades, unbeknownst to us illuminated few until just a few days/downloads ago.
When we do find him or her, we act like all our hard work digging through compilations and used record stores earns us some kind of copyright on the music. So, imagine the sheepish shame I feel at picking cult country balladeer Larry Jon Wilson’s name from a list of recent releases, mainly for the fact that it looked like none of the others. Turns out he was quite the catch for me to review; Georgia-born, Wilson didn’t learn how to play a guitar lick until the age of 30 and become something of a backroom legend amongst Nashville hitmakers and, since then, country and roots aficionados After four highly sought-after records released on Monument Records (of Roy Orbison fame) in the mid to late ’70s, Wilson’s distaste for the biz was so strong that he hung it up. Settling in the beach town of Perdido Key, Florida, Wilson would pop up now and again, playing a solo gig here and there for a little extra pocket money.
Almost 20 years after the release of his final record, Wilson was convinced by some buddies to record a new record, now in wide release from Drag City. Larry John Wilson is the result of a few days’ recording sessions in Wilson’s fifteenth-floor Florida condo. Producers Jeb Loy Nichols and Jerry DeCicca set Wilson up with mics and managed to push the Record button when songs would spring up between anecdotes. The resulting record is like a fire burning so hot that it can be too warm to stand next to for long. Wilson, who’s depicted in the album art like the rambunctious, oafish grandfather you wish you had, plays plaintive guitar figures to accompany his monolithic voice. Wilson’s vocals are granite like Johnny Cash’s, yet float and at times, get unbearably nakedly low like Fred Neil’s. Performing his own material, such as “Shoulders,” his sometimes clumsy lyrics paint him as a terribly sympathetic character, which makes the downcast “Losers Trilogy” a heart-rending medley of no-hopedrinkin’ songs. You can imagine the effect of “Whore Trilogy” some songs later.
Wilson makes the Dylan/Nelson song “Heartland” his own and murmurs that “that rocking chair/ Don’t scare me like it used to,” on “Rocking With You,” where Wilson accepts the fate of old age; upon reading the title, I was ready for a rollicking number and I got fooled. Most destructive to one’s wherewithal is the closing “Where From,” a kind of folksy take on existential angst bitterly recited over guitar as moody as those semi-acoustic bits in 1980s Metallica records: “Life comes/ Where from?/ A world you never asked for holds you hostage/ ‘Til you turn 21/ You try to learn by watchin’ grown-ups/ When you’re grown yourself/ You wonder why it all wasn’t blown up.” The track ends with Wilson proclaiming off-mic, “…ain’t no marshmallow songs.” Wilson sounds like a gnarled old piece of wood sunk at the bottom of a fast-moving river. He and his music are unequivocally authentic; that is, this is not a man of Music City, a place that “didn’t know how to take [him].” Instead, this is a weathered old poet, a true man of song for whom this record is a triumph. I feel bad I had it so easy finding him.
by Chris Middleman