(Jefferson Ross Records)
Every spring, my mother would beckon me to help her empty out the ashes from our fireplace. We would then take it and spread it at the base of all the azaleas in our backyard. When I asked why we did this, she simply said, “The resin in the ashes makes the roots healthy and the blossoms brighter.”
These thoughts rose to the surface as I finished a third listen to Jefferson Ross’ debut album Azalea. It is evident that Ross spread his own ashes to bring life to this surprising collection of songs that gets under your skin on successive plays. It hums with the occasional familiar twang of contemporary Nashville country. But unlike most music that comes out of the Music City these days, Ross straddles between contemporary and classic country sounds. He brings a genuine voice to his songs and lifts them with simplicity. The result is an element generally lacking in most country music today. Gravitas.
Songs like the album title "Azalea", "I Was Here", "The Last Song", and "Stillwater" will hum in your ear long after you’ve heard them for the first time. I say first time, because to my own surprise, a self-proclaimed contemporary country music antagonist, I found myself listening to these songs again and again. Finding deeper grooves with each new rotation. I don’t like contemporary country music. But I found myself liking this and grew to love it. The two jewels on the album are "Hard to Be So Easy", a classic country duet that pines of loves and relationships we can’t seem to let go of. And finally, The "Prophet Elijah". Who in Nashville has the courage to write a country song about racism in the south and then actually pulls it off with such effect? Overall, the album sings about parts of the south that often get overlooked. The landscape of gentility that pangs with the occasional melancholic ache, but never leaves the listener hopeless. It always points to the resin within whatever time and the world burns away.
Jefferson is a longtime journeyman of the Nashville circuit. A native of Lincoln County, Georgia, he got his start in the Jimmy Swaggart Band at the tender age of 18. After getting fired for drinking wine at a party, he moved to Nashville permanently and scored gigs in backup bands for many Nashville recording artists. After a long stint as bassist/musical director for recording artist Terri Clark, he settled into songwriting. “I never wanted to be a singer/songwriter. I more aspired to be like those great songwriters who were behind the scenes like Harlan Howard and Bob McDill. They were famous among their peers, but not to anyone outside of Nashville.”
When I inquired about why he finally decided to do an album of his own, he confessed that he wanted to preserve some of himself and his work. “Lennie Gallant is a good friend of mine. He’s sort of the Gordon Lightfoot of Eastern Canada. He always talked about the vast song cemetery up here in Nashville. Where all these amazing songs are written but are never heard because they can’t get through Nashville bureaucracy. He encouraged me to not add any more to the song cemetery and put some of my music on an album. I thought it might be a great calling card for me. I wasn’t expecting it to get the response that it did.”
With critical raves from the country music press here in the US and in Europe, he is about to embark on his first European tour. I asked if there were more albums in him. “I have about 200 songs written that I would like to give the light of day. I actually feel like there are better albums in me, so hopefully I will get to that after the tour.”