In all the great music and awful chaos of 2020, one thing that’s been in short supply is sad love songs. There have been some devastating albums (Courtney Marie Andrews’ Old Flowers remains the best break-up record of the year), but the old, odd comfort of finding that solitary sadness in the midst of a country album was surprisingly welcome when I sat down to listen to the latest release from Nashville-based Bo Armstrong, Chasing Ballads.
Armstrong has lived an atypical life before arriving at music full-time. Inspired by the songs of Jerry Jeff Walker and images on Luckenbach, Armstrong’s parents moved to Texas before he was born. He moved to Connecticut as a teenager to play hockey, then on to the understated paradise of Upstate New York for college, then to the Mississippi Delta to teach elementary school, and eventually to Nashville (with stops in New York City and Ireland along the way) to take a true shot at music and storytelling. The man’s lived a life, and it shows in the album’s lead track, “Meet Me in Memphis.” Feeling as though he’s running to stand still – “Well, I’ve been stuck in this Mississippi mud” – the singer longs for time spent in what amounts to his happy place, which undoubtedly holds more promise than his current life offers – “Piss away the night then hit the Blue and White/Where we’ll laugh about last night’s affairs.” The title track might serve as an origin story for Armstrong, as he grows from a boy fighting off imaginary bad guys to “chasing down the kind of magic that I’ve only ever found in a song,” still living that childhood dream.
If your taste in music runs somewhere between country and the jangly Americana of old-school John Mellencamp, you’ll find a lot to like on Chasing Ballads. There’s steel sprinkled across several tracks (“Wildfire” and the title cut), along with some fun accordion work on “Dance with Me.” There are warm family sentiments (“Here’s Looking at You, Kid” and “Mama Sway”), and Armstrong is eager to share the mic with several female singers, including a standout turn from Taylor Stearns on “Where Are You Lonesome?”. There’s even a reference to a dependable truck in the long-term romance “Built to Last.” Like that truck, the country on this record is steady and well-worn.
So, that sad song I mentioned? “Wearing Out These Wings” has some familiar country staples – long-haul trucks, pictures taped to a dashboard and comforting strangers – and it’s guided along by steel and Armstrong’s acoustic guitar. But the song (written with Brian Douglas Phillips, who also produced and plays all manner of instruments on the record), succeeds because it doesn’t give away too much. It survives on those images and the sadness in Armstrong’s voice, mourning “your innocent smile/That I don’t have the strength to forget.” We don’t know why it’s over – we just know that it is, and that it hurts. And that’s what makes a song sad, relatable and, yes, magical.
Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “Wearing Out These Wings,” because I miss feeling sad with a room full of strangers.
Chasing Ballads was produced, engineered and mixed by Brian Douglas Phillips and mastered by Jeff Lipton and Maria Price. All songs were written by Bo Armstrong, with co-writing credits going to Phillips, Aaron Clafton, Joybeth Taylor, Wesley Lunsford, Laurel Wright, Michael Baum, and Hunter Newsom. Additional musicians on the album include Phillips (acoustic guitar, banjo, bass, Mellotron, organ, pedal steel, piano, Wurlitzer, background vocals), Clay Corn (accordion), Jacob Hildebrand (electric and classical guitars), Fred Mandujano (drums, percussion), and Sierra Carson, Taylor Stearns and Laurel Wright (vocals).
Go here to order Chasing Ballads: https://www.boarmstrongmusic.com/vinyl