Producing a record is somewhat akin to managing a baseball team – experience, technical knowledge and an understanding of life on the road are all necessary skills. But the ability to coax the best out of each player is really the heart of the job. Singer-songwriter-multi instrumentalist Travis Linville came to his latest album with a boatload of talent and a bucketful of songs, but fellow Oklahoman JD McPherson, himself an experienced songwriter and touring musician, suggested that Linville use his own experience as a longtime collaborator to push the boundaries of the singer-songwriter mold. The result is I’m Still Here (Black Mesa Records), an album full of tightly-written songs and excellent musicianship with contributions from some of the best in the business.
Of course, the biggest part of a successful musical collaboration is having an artist willing to share the spotlight a bit. After years of session work and supporting gigs, Linville has amassed an impressive Rolodex and, more importantly, the respect of a wide swath of country-adjacent artists. Both Linville’s solo talent and willingness to work together are evident from the album’s first track, “I’m Still Here.” It’s a tune he’d been kicking around for a bit before McPherson suggested that ace songwriter (and member of The Highwomen) Natalie Hemby help him poish it off. The result is a mix of Nashville smooth and old-school steel, with an unintentional nod to the pandemic and the disappearance of live music – “There were times I was invisible/But I never really let you go.” The next song dives back to a happier past. Borrowed from former bandmate Jamie Kelley, “Feeling We Used to Know” carries a jangly 90s college rock feel and takes a stab at that original joy that came from a past emotional mindset, whether it’s a former love or playing music together – “if we could go back to that feeling we used to know.”
A longtime musician’s best songwriting fodder might be their endless travel, and Linville’s solo writes are full of such currency, “See You Around” is a low-key number punctuated with piano and just the right amount of harmonica while the singer casually assesses his stop for the night – “I can understand why you want to get gone/This place is only good for racking up sins.” In “Blue Sky Bound,” it’s Linville himself who’s got gone, and not a moment too soon – “But we’re only going nowhere if we’re only hanging around.”
Linville loves both his influences and his contemporaries, and those two come together in “Yesterday’s Wine,” a cover of the Willie Nelson classic. Here, Linville trades verses with longtime roadmate Hayes Carll and throws the chorus to friends John Fullbright and Jacob Tovar, turning Nelson’s solo lament into rollicking musical group therapy. And “Diamonds and Dust” is an old-school dancehall ballad that’s actually one of the newer songs on the record. Written with McPherson, it celebrates connections that span separation, life on the road and even a pandemic – “I’ll be there with you/After diamonds turn to dust.” WIth a lifetime of connections forged on stage and in the studio, Linville’s found that his future is linked to those enduring friendships.
Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “Yesterday’s Wine” – An excellent cover that honors the original while adding a new layer. Plus, who couldn’t use some good musical therapy right about now?
I’m Still Here was produced by JD McPherson, engineered by Scott McEwen and Dexter Green, mixed by Green and mastered by Garrett Haines. All songs were written by Travis Linville except where noted above. Musicians on the album include Jason Smay (drums), Dominic Davis (bass) and Raynier Jacildo (keys), with additional contributions from McPherson, Green, Mike Meadows, Ryan Jones and Becky Carman, and guest vocals on “Yesterday’s Wine” from Hayes Carll, John Fullbright and Jacob Tovar.
To order I’m Still Here: https://blackmesarecords.com/collections/im-still-here
To see Travis Linville on tour, go here http://www.travislinvillemusic.com/live