The best records shoot right to the heart with a truth and a passion that almost immediately puts them in constant rotation in your cd player, turntable, iPod, or, most importantly, in your mind. It usually starts with the basic ingredients of a set a first-rate songs perfectly produced and recorded. All of this is easy to explain but hard to do.
As we sit fairly early in 2009, Matt Butcher has recorded this kind of classic with Me and My Friends. Butcher comes from an emerging number of Southeners who have embraced reflective country-tinged, singer-songwriter approach as almost a counterpoint to our culture that is too often filled with technological assaults.
North Carolina's Ryan Adams, first through Whiskeytown and then solo, as well as South Carolina's, Florida's, and now Austin's Iron and Wine, (ie Sam Beam) have become the ends of the creative spectrum of these artists. Beam thrives as an indie darling while Adams has transcended that same title, developing a more mainstream audience. Butcher draws from both showing that staying in the middle of the right kind of road can be a place of promise.
In speaking of his solo debut, Butcher said, “I wear my influences on my sleeve. Proudly. I’m not trying to re-invent the wheel. Just keep it spinning.” That quote shows how Matt Butcher distinguishes himself among the growing legion of singer-songwriters that litter today's indie scene. Butcher's sense of humility allows him to draw upon some obvious influences like early Dylan, Gram Parsons, and how those two have been filtered by the Adams/Beam spectrum mentioned above. With all the influence apparent to the ear, Me and My Friends remains fresh, soulful, and groundbreaking all the same.
Butcher has been candid that a large part of the inspiration for the songs on this record came from the long and painful process of moving on from a negative influences in his life. Before this solo album, he led the Heathens, a promising band that seemed to fall apart just as they were gaining momentum. That usually means some hidden demons were at work. According to published accounts, too much of Butcher's time was spent looking for the next artificial high rather than the next musical high.
The chorus of the lead and title track defines this state well:
So let's drive out of town, get stoned and get lost and turn around
We will find our way back to a happier state of mind
Me and my friends.... are hurting
The imagery of creeping ennui Butcher creates in this song shows not the usual harrowing tale of addiction, but the slow, stubborn momentum that builds around a soul-sucking lifestyle that drags a person down like an evil undertow. It's not the drugs as much as the people, the places, and the habits that keep someone from making changes they desperately need.
From the first striking notes of the title track, Butcher's cycle of songs chronicle heartbreak, loss, sadness, and emotional drift. Each one is a gem, expertly constructed by producer Justin Beckler to bring out the best in Butcher's songs.
By "The Company I Keep" near the end of the album, the tempo has changed and its urgency matches the subject matter as the lyrics chronicle a man realizing his life has not only hit its lowest point. It is nothing but low points:
Loneliness is a thief out of sight
Dressed in black, he breaks in my house every night
He ain't no surprise to me
He's always on time, he is kind... company
Using rock and roll's consistent sense of dogged perseverance, Butcher and Beckler find the best way to put the "rock" in rock bottom. The gospel-tinged "Grace On a Greyhound Bus" gives a sense of coming redemption, but the record holds as an overall cautionary tale.
In this artful album, Butcher shows how country music will continue to live on from generation to generation. It is the music of shared pain. From honky tonk angels that will break your heart to post-grunge kids waking from too many lost years, a sad tale accompanied by an acoustic guitar with a little pedal steel remains one of the best musical ways to say, "let me tell you my story. Let me share my pain."
The standout track, "Giving My Sadness a Name," sung in duet with Olivia Wynn (the daughter of Cowboy's Tom Wynn), might be one of the most sadly beautiful country ballads written in the last decade. I'm not sure if today's Nashville would have the guts to cover it, but it could be a glorious return to form if they would ever decide to seek it.
Much like the Rolling Stones epic Exile On Main Street, Me and My Friends places you in the middle of the pain that a user's self-medication attempts to cover. Rather than saying "don't do it," Butcher shows you where you will be if you do.
In an album with countless deep, dark moments, perhaps this line sums it up best from whee Butcher has escaped:
"It ain't living. It's just getting by."
- Jim Markel