by Phil Scarisbrick
When you see the word ‘Dixie’ in the title of an album or song, it evokes certain visions of what lies behind that moniker. For those of us situated to the east of the Atlantic Ocean, our first impression of the word is probably either a rootin’, tootin’, Confederate flag-draped bluegrass affair, or The Band-infused Americana. At times, Jonathan Wilson’s new solo album – Dixie Blur – utilises elements of both these stereotypes, but also gives us so much more.
After the critical acclaim received for 2018’s Rare Birds, Wilson decamped to Nashville – on the advice of Steve Earle – to take it all back to where it started. As a creative base, Nashville needs no introduction, but it was the first time he had tapped into its rich musical mysticism. The resulting album seems to travel everywhere from Laurel Canyon to The Big Pink with several stops in between. Where Rare Birds utilised a ‘maximalist’ approach in its production, Dixie Blur dispenses with this to let the songs do the talking for themselves.
’69 Corvette’s haunting acoustic guitar picks, piano and slide guitar soundtrack underscores a reflective mood, sitting somewhere between John Wesley Harding and Nebraska in both sound and storytelling. The lone fiddle adds an extra emotive tone to one of the record’s early highlights. That fiddle also returns for So Alive – one of the records more straight up bluegrass numbers. Oh Girl starts as a simple, affecting piano ballad, but builds around Wilson’s sublime vocal before dropping into a Wings-evoking middle eight. Once it returns to the initial balladry, you’re completely hooked.
Fun For The Masses is another fat slice of North Carolina-infused Americana, and tugs on the heartstrings in the same way as ’69 Corvette does. El Camino Real is straight up country – the kind you can imagine line-dancing troupes around the world getting down to. Its toe-tapping sound and infectious chorus make it one of the most fun moments on the whole album. Album closer, Korean Tea, is a six minute ballad that builds towards a closing crescendo that is the nearest we get to Rare Birds’ stylings on the whole album, despite being brief, before crashing back down to intertwining acoustic guitars and piano.
Recorded in only six days, the record may be a departure from what Wilson has done previously, but it is no less accomplished. Although Rare Birds was a triumph in itself, the incredible production gave you less space to appreciate the songs in their own right. Here, you have no such issues. Wilson bares his soul over minimal (by his standards) backing, taking us on a musical journey around the USA, and accomplishes something truly memorable. If there were any doubts about Wilson the songwriter, rather than Wilson the producer, Dixie Blur proves he is equally brilliant at both.
Secret Meeting score: 85