REVIEW: Wade Bowen – ‘Solid Ground’

Some musicians spend their careers chasing ‘the dream’. Some never make it and some do, some grab it and can’t keep it whilst others piss it away in a haze of drink, drugs, women and men! Wade Bowen thought he had it back in 2012 when he released his major label debut album, ‘The Given’, for Sony imprint, BNA Records but it turned out to be fleeting brush with the dream and 18 months later it was gone. Another example of the ruthlessness of the Music Row labels and their insatiable need to take a thing of beauty and squash it into a generic pigeon-hole for the radio programmers and TV executives. Wade Bowen has been making music for virtually half of his 40 years, he is a veteran of the Texas circuit and the Red Dirt scene. His name is synonymous with Austin, with Lubbock, with the Mexican border towns that he used to frequent in his college days but that didn’t transfer well enough into units shifted in Nashville so he was sent packing.

Any artist in that scenario can approach the future in two different ways. They can go back cap-in-hand to Nashville, like a little Oliver Twist in ragged clothes asking for another shot or they can dust themselves down, re-connect with what made them great in the first place and stick a big middle finger up at the suits – this album, ‘Solid Ground’, is Wade Bowen’s big middle finger in musical form – two of the ten songs on this album are over 7 minutes in length – and are all-the-more beautiful because of it. Can you imagine Bowen turning those in to some executive on Music Row and having them stay, uncut, in their original format? No, neither can I. ‘Solid Ground’ is also a love letter to Texas: from the title, to the cover, to the references to the aforementioned towns – this album is dripping in Texan dust and dirt. It has mariachi moments, accordion underpinning some of the songs and a joyous freedom and creativity that is rarely seen on albums these days – the sheer musicality of ‘Solid Ground’ is a pure joy to behold.

The album is book-ended by its two most ‘out-there’ songs. Opener ‘Couldn’t Make You Love Me’ is a fever-dream in musical form, full of Mississippi ‘riverboat’ heat in its first quarter and religious imagery in its last whilst album closer, ‘Calling All Demons’ is a continuation of that swampy, ‘True Blood’ type of heat and claustrophobia. It uses metaphors in linking the narrator’s demons with his vices. Clocking in at seven and a half minutes long it is a behemoth of a song, all wailing guitars and Robert Johnson feels and even when it fades away and you can breathe again it comes back in, like an unwelcome visitor, or demon maybe, for another 90 seconds – demanding your attention and pulling you back into its story.

Other places on ‘Solid Ground’ find Bowen in reflective, nostalgic mood. ‘So Long 6thStreet’, a distant cousin of The Wallflowers, ‘6thAvenue Heartache’ in tone and feel, sees Bowen reminiscing about his time in Austin, Texas, a time, incidentally, he refers to as the hardest two years of his career. Jack Ingram and Miranda Lambert combine with Bowen on this song, possibly the most radio-friendly song on the album, to create something of beauty: superb harmonies, accordion and slide guitar weave seamlessly together to create ‘Solid Ground’’s biggest sing-a-long moment.  ‘Acuna’, similarly, sees Bowen singing about the Mexican border town he used to frequent during his time in college at Lubbock.  He makes the link between the passing of time and the creeping onset of middle age with the disappearance of the Texan dancehall scene brilliantly – add in a Springsteen like harmonica solo and you’ve got the makings of a classic song right here. The great songwriters are able to say something meaningful and yet lull you into singing along at the same time – Springsteen does it, Dylan did it and so does Wade Bowen in ‘Acuna’ – he expertly addresses the passing of time but makes you want to have a beer and sing at the same time, that there is a rare gift.

There are two more beautiful songs, placed consecutively together right slap, bang in the middle of ‘Solid Ground’ that act as a pivot to the more musical ones that come before and after them, although one of the songs, ‘7.30’ is possibly the most musical moment on the whole album. On Death, Dyin’ and Deviled Eggs’ and the aforementioned ‘7.30’ we see Bowen exploring mortality and dealing head on with grief and loss in its everyday form. The former was written in the aftermath of Guy Clark’s death and is an interesting look at the surreal nature of funerals and wakes whilst ‘7.30’ sees Bowen receiving a call informing him of a loss before he’s even smoked his first cigarette or his coffee is cold. Imagine if Counting Crows got to stretch ‘A Long December’ out to seven plus minutes long and you’d be somewhere in the ballpark of the genius of this song. In many respects, whilst the lyrics are very intimate and tell the story of the morning superbly they are almost outshone by the three minute guitar outro that sees the song reach its climax at the seven minute mark. It’s a wonderful mix of guitar and accordion that you could listen to all night if given the chance. There aren’t many songs of this length that you won’t want to end but this is one of them, trust me.

Other highlights on the album include, ‘Day of the Dead’, a Mexican, mariachi tinged number which features horns and tells the tale, again, of a loss, this time of a girl, in such a way that feels rather uplifting whilst ‘Compass Rose’ is an Eagles-esque song about love and trust that Bowen wrote with Andrew Combs. Another writing partner and someone else, like Combs, who is familiar to us here in the UK is Charlie Worsham. He co-helmed ‘Fell in Love on Whiskey’, which was originally written as a bluegrass number intended to annoy the music labels and publishing houses!

Bowen’s bravest moment on ‘Solid Ground’ is the heartbreakingly brutal, “Anchor’. A song that sees him questioning his own self-worth in a marriage or long-term relationship. When he sings the line, ‘Am I an anchor or just a rock you drag around?’ you can almost feel the years of weight, routine and repetition pressing down upon the relationship he is singing about and it makes you think of your friends, and we all have them, who are trapped in marriages or relationships similar to the one being described here. ‘Anchor’ is more than just a song, it’s a mirror to hold up to your own relationship and maybe something of a self-help manual for those that might need it. A wonderfully crafted but very dangerous song! I would love to know what his wife thought of it when she heard it for the first time!

‘Solid Ground’ would never have been made on a major Nashville label. Bowen would have been denied the freedom and creativity to produce such a work of inspiring music. It would have been trimmed, squashed and made to resemble something entirely different to what its creator intended. Aaron Watson, Jason Isbell, Turnpike Troubadours and Will Hoge have all proved that an independent artist, armed with a great album and a willingness to tour, can make a decent living these days as people turn away from what the radio forces them to listen to. In ‘Solid Ground’ Bowen can now count himself part of that elite set of artists who remain fiercely proud of what they do and remain completely in charge of their own creative destinies. In the years to come more and more musicians will take this route and people like Bowen will be seen as the trailblazers, treading a path away from the controlling hands of the major labels – it will be hard work, it will take patience and perseverance but the genre will be all the better off for it and let’s hope that ‘Solid Ground’ is lauded as being one of the albums that helped future independent musicians create a life for themselves away from the corporate world of 3 minute pop songs. This is the album that Wade Bowen was always destined to make and he should be damn well proud of it.

James Daykin
@rockjames