“I got my old man’s heart and a broke down Chevrolet.” So goes the refrain of the title track on Ryan Culwell’s The Last American (Missing Piece Records), a meditation on the dream that “you can be anything you want to be.” Culwell’s raspy, Texas-accented voice, supported by the ethereal guitar work of Megan McCormick and Ethan Ballinger, carries the weight of all our dreams and burdens, bridging across the generations. Even on the songs that began as lullabies for his children, like “Moon Hangs Down,” Culwell’s melancholy reflections seep through, as he sings, “it’s easy for a poor man to get drunk.” (Culwell is quite right about this, and you don’t believe me, Matthew Desmond’s poignant, Pulitzer-Prize winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Even if you believe me, you should read it.)
Like most musicians, Culwell has dealt with financial hardship. While his previous album, 2015’s Flatlands, earned him touring spots with artists such as Hayes Carll, Patty Griffin, and Billy Joe Shaver, it didn’t bring him financial security. He put touring on hold and worked a variety of jobs to support his family, at least one of which put him in real danger. When he came to making The Last American, Culwell also drew on his family’s experience as truckers working with and, he says, nearly being ruined by the oil companies. After the family had to convert to an overland hauling business, Culwell’s grandfather had a stroke at the wheel and died in a collision.
The best artists draw on their personal experience, but they generalize it and connect it to broader themes. A good artist speaking in first person may be speaking through a character, and when speaking in third person may be speaking biographically. Culwell has done that here: he has connected with the larger American psyche, with the anxieties we feel about the economy and about the future. This album is definitely worth your time and attention, and it will make you think. Get a copy right here: https://www.ryanculwell.com/