Album Discussion: Red Shahan’s “Culberson County”

The what’s country and what isn’t debate never really goes away, does it? My friends Zack from The Musical Divide and Megan from Country Exclusive had a great discussion about this last night on Megan’s website. Why I am bringing this up? Because one of the things that kept running through my mind yesterday while listening to Red Shahan’s new album Culberson County was the reminder that yes, this is how country music is supposed to evolve.

It was a banner day for new country releases yesterday. Albums arrived from the badass Ashley McBryde, solid country pop duo Shotgun Rider, and the enigmatic star Kacey Musgraves. Each delivered their own interpretations and own visions of country music. All three are country albums (despite what some publications that don’t actually cover country music may say). None of them are objectively not-country. But for my own tastes, it was Red Shahan’s Culberson County that stole the show.

I mentioned on Twitter that Culberson County sounded like what you would get if Joshua Tree was in North Florida. The album is permeated with the vast feeling of space one gets when in the desert- whether that be Shahan’s own West Texas or flying over Nevada and Southern California, looking down, and then seeing the wide and sweeping vistas. Yet there’s also the underlying themes of classic Southern country music that surround many of the songs on Culberson County.

Culberson County is an album that demands the listener to revel in the vast array of musical influences. There’s the storytelling of a Ryan Bingham on display here, some cosmic country à-la Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, California country in the vein of Yoakam or The Byrds, and enough Texas country to give the album some polish and accessibility.

“Memphis” is the stand-out track in my eyes. The lyrics paint a stark portrait of a family broken down by a dad who left his loved one’s. “Waterbill” is a fantastic choice to open the album. The guitars even add a touch of rockabilly to the clever lyrics, and the Yoakam sound is really evident. “Hurricane” and “Roses” are two tracks that exhibit classic country songwriting with a unique, cosmic sound. Another track to mention is “Enemy,” which has the feeling of space that I had previously mentioned coupled with giving the listener the ability to picture a small honky-tonk in which the narrator is dispensing his wisdom. The ideas of space and constraint are quite the antithesis of each other, but Shahan excels at grabbing two contradictory themes and allowing the themes to coexist in the same songs.

Culberson County also features perhaps one of my favorite line of lyrics on a new release I’ve heard in a long time. On “Idle Hands,” Shahan sings “Lord, let this woman make me a busy man.” Such a simple line but so poignant. We all know that feeling of wanting something more in life. In Shahan’s case on “Idle Hands,” he’s drifting and not really sure where to go. But he knows a good woman could make him happy and give him purpose. Something I and many others can relate to.

When folks talk about country needing to evolve, it’s often code for saying country isn’t cool enough or that it’s and boring. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Fans of country who do care about the genre do so because they know the history of country. Country music is a unique, culturally significant form of art. But country music can evolve in the right ways. It can hold onto its roots and still move forward. And that’s what Red Shahan does so excellently on Culberson County. The album is three chords and the truth, with the sound retaining one foot in the roots of the genre and one foot planted firmly forward. As it should be.

For fans of: Ryan Bingham, The Byrds with Gram Parsons, Texas Country/Red Dirt fans looking for something a little more, Dwight Yoakam at his most unique

Favorite tracks: “Hurricane,” “Idle Hands,” “Memphis,” “Culberson County,” and “Someone Someday.”

Fantastic album artwork from Morgan Avary.
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