Movies and music centring on the freeways of the U.S. of A have long been symbolic of the country’s proud pursuit of liberty. Yet when these selfsame highways are lost or endless they can come to represent something rotten in the heart of the American dream.
The highways that inspire this debut album are not roads to nowhere but the uncertainly about where exactly citizens are heading still gives plenty of cause for concern.
The record opens with the title track and is followed by two more songs in which the singer reflects sadly that there is “no romance on the open road” (Take Her By Hand) and confesses that he is “still searching for that dream” (Midnight Rendezvous).
This is a little formulaic, of course, but these are not empty-headed paeans to lost freedom. Rather they show Josh Gray to be a poetic storyteller with a firm belief in social justice and an ear for a great tune.
Gray is based in Nashville but, although one track is called Born In Tennessee, he is originally from San Francisco and grew up in Montgomery County, Maryland. The Tennessee track turns out to be an ode to a “sultry-eyed siren” rather than a celebration of his roots.
The crowd-funded album is his first full length release and, since he is now in his early thirties, the tag ‘long awaited’ perhaps serves as code for ‘long postponed’. Certainly it is a mature record that feels fully thought out rather than unformed or speculative.
Gray’s voice is one of experience which carries an authority that never sounds forced. Music City musicians provide slick, albeit at times stolid, backing while Kenzie Miracle on fiddle adds significantly to the warmth of the sound.
Despite the album’s title, these are not all strident road songs. For instance, the folky All Out War is distinctly Cohen-esque with its bitter refrain maintaining that “Love ain’t a battle it’s an all out war”.
The centrepiece of the record is a brooding seven minute state of the nation address called Darkest Before The Dawn that leaves the listener in no doubt of the singer’s political leanings. Over an elegantly orchestrated backing, Gray advocates community over consumerism and chastises U.S. leaders as “self serving cowards growing empowered with cash from the NRA”.
To hammer the point home, Second Chances is a compassionate spoken word piece dedicated to a dishevelled street dweller who is down but not yet out while Ghosts asks pointedly Can the richest nation afford empathy?”
In this company a rockabilly love song, Two Hearts, seems a little out of place and the prayer-like closing track Ease Your Pain appears a little melodramatic.
Overall though, this is a strong collection of songs by an honest and committed singer who knows only too well that the highways are still jammed with broken heroes.
Josh Gray’s website