The Upshot: With his fresh-but-familiar Americana sound and nakedly personal-yet-emotionally-universal lyrics, the Nashville songwriter won’t be a best-kept-secret much longer.
BY FRED MILLS
Hearing this album for the first time—this morning, in fact, approximately three hours and nearly four complete spins ago—was a revelation, the proverbial musical ton of bricks, like the first time I heard Jason Isbell as a solo performer, or when I got my initial astonishing dose of Chris Whitley on the Thelma & Louise soundtrack, or, yeah, that afternoon as a teenager I brought Greetings From Asbury Park home from the local five-and-dime, cracked the plastic, and cued up the LP on my battered Magnavox drop-down record player. I’d settled down with the morning coffee, NPR’s “Weekend Edition” on the radio, and suddenly this haunting, country-sounding voice with a spare, folkish backing came over the airwaves; soon enough I learned it was a Nashville songwriter named Travis Meadows, and radio host Scott Simon was talking to him about his just-released fourth record, First Cigarette, and about the highs (writing songs for stars like Eric Church, Dierks Bentley, and Jake Owen—the latter landed the Meadows-penned “What We Ain’t Got” at #14 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart a couple of years ago) and lows (among them, the cancer that took his right leg when he was 14; and the adult drinking, which at one point got so bad that would have to wake up to a couple of shots of vodka each morning just to cure the shakes) of his life to date.
Fascinated by this narrative—the seven-years-sober aspect in particular resonated with me, as Jason Isbell’s post-addiction albums remain among my favorite of this decade so far—and mesmerized by the snatches of songs that Simon played for the listeners, I immediately flicked on Spotify and found First Cigarette. And as soon as I finish this review I plan to drive directly over to the record store and buy the CD (they are already holding a copy for me; if it winds up getting released on vinyl, I will buy that as well and gift the CD to some friend who needs his or her own musical revelation).
Those three namechecks in the first sentence above weren’t stray comparisons. The song “Travelin’ Bone” sounds uncannily like Isbell in spots, from Meadows’ yearning croon that descends to an edge-of-rasp at key moments; to the low-key anthemism of the arrangement wrought by sparsely twanging guitar, staccato banjo, and spectral organ; to the narrative lyric structure itself, in which Meadows questions the motivations powering his life thus far and if he’s even worthy of being alive. Later on, “Better Boat” conjures images of the late Whitley thanks to an atmospheric, almost ambient arrangement and echoey slide guitar flourishes all giving the tune a distinctive wide-open-spaces (read: big sky country) vibe. And “Hungry” is pure latterday Springsteen, incorporating subtle blues and gospel motifs (wait for the falsetto, take-me-to-heaven, ooh-ooh-oohs near the end) and steadily building to a climax that’s not bombastic, but still feels like you’re being lifted up high. “I used to say this hunger’s killing me/ But baby, it’s what’s keeping me alive/ I’m still hungry all the time” is the kind of line that can bring you to your knees—one day Meadows will be bringing entire theaters and arenas to their collective knees with that line. (I would be remiss if I didn’t note, within this Springsteen context, that there’s a song here called “Pray for Jungleland” that directly invokes the icon’s name, and to great effect. But I won’t go any further than that with my spoiler—you’ll have to check out the tune yourself.)
Ultimately, though, Meadows isn’t so much like these other artists—Isbell is probably the one he’ll be compared to most often—as he is among them, because his sound is as fresh, in a familiar-like-a-friend’s-handshake way, and his words as unique, thanks to how nakedly personal yet emotionally universal they feel, as all the greats.
I’m finding myself obsessed after just a few hours and playing a quick round of catch-up by checking out selected tracks from 2007 debut My Life 101, 2011’s Killin’ Uncle Buzzy, and 2013 mini-album Old Ghosts & Unfinished Business, (There’s also a limited-edition live CD from 2015, Live at Natchez Hills Vinyard, and what appears to be an early gospel recording called Here I Am that Meadows apparently cut in 2001, presumably during the period when he was a preacher and a missionary.)
I’m also finding myself amazed that, to date, Meadows has essentially operated as a musical best-kept-secret, tapped here and there by more popular artists who recognized the man’s songwriting talent, but flying well below the radar of most everyone else.
This album’s gonna change all that. He’s the real goddam deal, and I will stake my reputation as an aging music critic on it. That’s a five-out-of-five-stars rating at the top of this review, too. Watch the year-end accolades come in, and keep your eye on the awards ceremonies that follow.
DOWNLOAD: “Hungry,” “First Cigarette,” “Travelin’ Bone”