Country music is at an interesting crossroads right now with a tug of war between the mainstream establishment and the ever-growing Americana movement that highlights various traditions under the encompassing country music umbrella, including bluegrass, folk, and gospel. As we have seen play out over the course of country music history, this tug of war between country’s various styles is as old as the genre itself. In the mid-1980s, a group of country music artists emerged with a sound that retaliated against the popular fusion of country and pop by incorporating a “back to basics” approach, comprising stringed acoustic instruments, harmony singing, and stripped-down songwriting. This movement that persisted well into the 90s produced the likes of George Strait, Reba McEntire, Keith Whitley, and Earl Thomas Conley. The sound of neotraditional country has somewhat faded from the genres modern playing field but a young artist from San Jacinto, California is starting to bring it back. His name is Clayton Smalley and his latest EP preserves country’s neotraditional sound.
Drawing inspiration from the artists mentioned above, Smalley has crafted a nostalgic six-track EP that weaves through narratives of lost youth, unfulfilled dreams, and the remedy of the open road. Kicking the EP off is the thumping “Two Lane Time Machine” where the narrator fixes up the truck he drove as a teenager and reminisces about the days of his youth. We hear of his first love and his first bout with heartbreak as he reflects on days gone by culminating in a solid opening number that draws you in from the start. The second track, “Modern Day Merle” paints a vivid image of a drifting troubadour navigating life to the beat of his own drum – comparatively to the legendary country outlaw Merle Haggard. The song features a rhythmic drumbeat and excellent use of a fiddle.
Clocking in as the third track on the EP is my personal favorite, co-written by Smalley and John Griffin, “Phoenix Rise” serves as an introspective song of reflection that conveys two distinct meanings for the respective writers. Griffin started writing the song as a contemplation of looking back on his life as a gay man trying to assimilate to the world’s normative standards. The song serves as a plea for a redo to live his life openly without the pressure to conform. For Smalley, the song represents the regret of not chasing a dream at a young age and his voice gives the achingly beautiful lyrics life against the accompaniment of a weeping steel. The complexity of the song coupled with its delicate delivery and mournful instrumentation make it a highlight of the collection.
The title track “Dirt Road Therapy” is a song that allows you to forget whatever struggle you may be going through during its duration. With a rocking instrumentation steeped in subtlety and lyrics that paint a picture of a release from one’s troubles, the song is a perfect encapsulation of the EP itself. The song is even more pertinent for its reference to the late, great Joe Diffie who passed in March of 2020. “I Never Let A Good Time Get Away” and “Watch Me Fall” close out the EP by demonstrating the two sides of Smalley’s musical coin: rowdy exhilaration and melancholic observation. If Dirt Road Therapy is any indication of where Clayton Smalley is headed, then we should all be keeping our eyes on him for I believe he has the capacity to join the ranks of his heroes.
Dirt Road Therapy was produced, engineered, and mixed by Nashville music veteran David Flint. Prolific songwriter Steve Dean, who has written six number one country songs, co-wrote four of the six tracks on the EP along with Smalley and John Griffin, who served as a writer on all the songs as well as writing the closing track “Watch Me Fall” by himself.
You can listen to Dirt Road Therapy wherever you stream your digital music.
Clayton Smalley – Dirt Road Therapy (2020)
- Two Lane Time Machine
- Modern Day Merle
- Phoenix Rise
- Dirt Road Therapy
- I Never Let a Good Time Get Away
- Watch Me Fall