The idea of artists trying on new personas is nearly as old as rock ‘n’ roll itself. It’s a chance to work with new sounds, new subject matter and, in the case of Garth Brooks/Chris Gaines, new hair. East Tennessee’s Josh Smith of Handsome and the Humbles (who has a perfectly fine head of hair already) has developed a side project, Rev. J. Mikhael Smith and the Brimstone Miracle. And, as one might guess from the band’s name, their debut EP, Dogwood Winter, is a step back in time, trading in Smith’s brand of garage Americana for acoustic instruments and songs about untimely death..
The EP begins with a train song, “10:18.” And, as in all good train songs, people die. Guitar, banjo and fiddle introduce the tune, while the narrator waits on the platform for his family to arrive – “Saved them all to bring them to me/All I have that’s truly mine.” As the train is delayed, fates remain uncertain, and dread wells up, Smith has an inkling where this all leads – “If they’re not among the living, you can count me with the dead.”
Smith and his band tracked the album live in-studio, and it feels warm and lived-in. “Scoundrels and Sinners” is a mid-tempo bluegrass-y tune which floats on Zack Miles’ banjo line and tells of a place where life’s miscreants end up. Smith prefers this sort of happy purgatory to a more conventional afterlife where “hatred’s OK/Just as long as you do it God’s way.” The title track tells of a pair of lovers whose well-executed robbery turns bad as the law closes in. Madison Brown’s vocals match Smith’s as the couple finds a final use for the pistol “That her old pa had lent her/To keep her safe.” Best not to be part of a couple in one of Rev. Smith’s songs.
“Certain Expectations” finds its tone in Evie Andrus’ fiddle work (Andrus, as always, is a standout here). The lyrics examine America’s unspoken caste system – “Boy, know your station/You can look, but you can’t touch.” And the Reverend closes out the EP with “Searching for Jesus,” which likens religion to chasing a high – “It’s a strange thing to feel so alive/And just wish that you could die.” Like the other folks in Dogwood Winter, the recent convert doesn’t meet with a happy ending. But if you’re a fan of tragic country characters, this EP will do the job.
Dogwood Winter was produced by Josh Smith, who wrote all of the songs on the album. The Brimstone Miracle includes Lauryl Brisson (drums), Madison Brown (vocals), Zack Miles (banjo), Evie Andrus (fiddle) and Tyler Huff (bass).
Dogwood Winter can be ordered here: https://www.joshsmithsongs.com/music