REVIEW: Kyle Culkin “My Americana” Moves Effortlessly Through Idioms


On the cover of Kyle Culkin’s latest album, My Americana, a seafoam green Fender Telecaster® lies in the sun against a giant, weather-beaten tree stump in a field of struggling flora, battling for space against the enroaching ground. In the background, an endless blue sky beckons with its promise of freedom and a horizon of endless possibilities. The photo is a powerful visual metaphor for the themes mined in 11 beautifully executed songs by this triple-threat guitarist/singer/songwriter. It takes a combination of fearlessness, passion, confidence, optimism, and hubris to take on the major responsibilities of a project of this magnitude (don’t ask me how I know). Kyle does it all with talent, taste, and passion.

A Tele is perhaps the most basic of all electric guitars. Its elegance is found in its simplicity and it does not give up the goods without hard work-much like life in Kyle’s vision of America. Titles like “Too Far Gone,” “Devil’s Dove,” “Beer and Whiskey Blues,” and “Thicker Than Blood” speak to experiences that are both universal and personal, as organic as the visual elements on the album’s cover. This is familiar, American territory, revealed in Kyle’s seamless combination of rock, country, blues, and R&B. Kyle moves effortlessly through these idioms, independently and in various combinations. “Devil’s Dove” is a smoky slice of Southern rock barbeque; “Daddy Tried” is a gospel/waltz ode to hard work and fatherhood (with a nod to Merle), while “Canahan Alley” mines a Van Morrison vibe groove, propelled by nostalgic steel guitar that might have found a home on Astral Weeks. Patricia is a raucous instrumental that tips its hat to the Allman Brothers, and like every song on the album, showcases Kyle’s considerable guitar chops. From artful acoustic fingerpicking to flat-out electric blues shredding, Kyle covers a broad emotional territory on a variety of guitars. He never overplays his hand, and he uses taste, tone, and timing to season his heartfelt lyrics with the right amount of flavor.

If a performer can be judged by the company he keeps, then kudos to Kyle for collaborating with a talented stable of sympathetic players. Everything starts with the rhythm section, and drummer Westin Byerly (along with Kyle on bass) holds the songs down with aplomb, injecting more contemporary playing into some classic genres. Slide guitar maven Johnny Stachela brings his greased lightning and stellar phrasing to “Crying Over You.” No honky-tonk song is complete without pedal steel, and Marty Rifkin brings his trademark taste and tone to several songs. Add “Just Dave” Bernal on blues harp and Jamieson Trotter on keys and this music cannot fail in the soul department.

Technology has made music far more accessible and easy to create than ever before, but it’s still no guarantee of quality, and it will never substitute for the sweat equity needed to create art that is rooted in human experience, or the hours spent searching for the right notes on a guitar or the best words to convey emotion. There is no doubt that Kyle Culkin has put in the time needed to create this heartfelt ode to life in its many dimensions. Kyle has clearly occupied that space on his album cover, a space both desolate and rife with possibilities, and he has returned with My Americana. You owe it to yourself to listen.

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