You will be taken on a journey through the rural and suburban Deep South in Jefferson Ross’s latest album Isles of Hope, an acoustic collection of songs featuring tales of, “murderers, shoplifters, car thieves, hypochondriacs, a voodoo witch doctor, a legendary blind blues singer, winos, a dustbowl farmer, Noah, a pothead Tupperware selling mom and a pair of Siamese twins,” as Ross puts it in his notes on the making of the album. His vocal style and guitar playing are reminiscent of Delta blues, but his lyrics have a conversational quality that invites the listener to kick back with a cup of coffee (or maybe moonshine) and mentally engage as clever stories are spun as if by magic from the “low” country.
Given that Jefferson Ross has a past history of working as a staff songwriter in Nashville for many years, one would expect high-quality lyric writing from him, and that comes through full-throttle. What I didn’t expect, (yet was pleasantly impressed by) was that Ross’s songs would stray from the “Nashville formula” in a direction of creativity that is refreshing. I don’t get much out of songs that sound like they are mass produced hits to be consumed by any singer hoping to strike it rich. This album is chocked full of colorful trinkets in the form of spirituals (folk style), road songs, comedy, slick bluesy tunes, and heart-touching low-key ballads. With the help of Thomm Jutz, who recorded and also backed up on acoustic guitar and harmonies on this all-acoustic guitar album, Ross has put forth a collection that is stripped bare of effects and other musical trappings. It’s all about his character-enriched baritone voice, his expert finger-picking, and the stories.
There are lines where I just say to myself, “Man, I wish I’d written that!” In a song titled “Clues,” for instance, Ross sings, “I’m not banging on a pulpit,/ I’m not trying to blame a culprit/ I just want to scrape the judgment off my shoes/ Got no sermon in my soapbox/ No verdict in my voice box/ I’m just looking for clues.” The result is a cleverly orchestrated play off of a crime novel that takes a tongue-in-cheek look at life’s little mysteries. “High Times In The Low Country” is a laid back breezy tune that hits you right with the title itself, a play on words to echo the sentiment of the song–a rejected lover seeking relief from his “low” state of mind (heartbreak) by seeking “high” times on the road, at parties with friends, and in the bottle. But any “low” songs (which are few in the CD) are well-balanced with songs like “Family Drama,” a hilarious peek inside a family in chaos. Lines like, “My daddy swears his cardiac prognosis is quite grim,/ My mom complains of cataracts,/ Her world view is quite dim,” trigger a laugh. There’s more chuckles to be had listening to songs like “Daddy Likes To Rock,” a playful tale pitting a past-his-prime restaurant performer against his aggravated working wife, who finds relief in “rolling a fatty.” But “77 Lime Green Cadillac Hearse” is just a priceless song. The hot, bluesy finger-picking, mixed with a vocal tone almost reminiscent to me of Lyle Lovett, takes you on a trip down to the very Deep South, maybe Louisiana, where a spooky voodoo queen/gypsy mixes potions, reads the future, and cruises around in her hearse, wreaking havoc on at least one unfortunate victim–the narrator:
She calls on Dr. Buzzard as she grinds the mojo root
Grabs a banty rooster and a dagger from her boot
Mixes up a cocktail to summon up the dead
And it’s all cash on the barrelhead
The song actually reminds me of a track you might hear in a Disney movie–not the production by any means, but the lyrics are so colorful I can picture a Disney villain mixing up trouble, animation-style.
On a more personal note, it is not often that I cry at a song’s lyrics, especially upon first hearing it, but “Take A Picture” got me right in the heart. My mother recently passed away, and two days after she died my brother, sister, and I were rifling through photographs so that my sister could put together a slide show for the funeral. One after another made us laugh, croon, and tear up, and for me, they were comforting, because watching my mother waste away from cancer caused me to have trouble remembering her in her better days. So a week or so later, this song comes on, and I focus on the first chorus, “We’ll never get this back again/ In a flash it’s over and/ It’s permanent as solid stone and scripture/ Take the picture.” The song immediately became real for me in that moment, and the ending tagline, “Daddy’s right/ I miss her,” hit home. It was almost uncanny, as if the song were written just for me, and it gave me a good cry. In fact, every time I hear it, I cry, but it is a nice cry over the fact that her moments with us have been preserved forever in photographs. Wow, what a wonderful song!
I could go on and on about this album, but my review has gotten long. And that is my only quibble. At sixteen tracks, it may be a challenge even for the best of astute listeners to stay focused. I almost wish Ross had taken the best ten tracks, put them in an album, and saved the rest till he could add to them and put out another in a year or so. I think a shorter CD would have really given it an extra powerful punch. But as it is, Isles Of Hope is powerful, gritty, heart-felt, humorous, and oh-so-Southern…a great keepsake of an album.