Drexel Rayford – Cherokee Road (2011)

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Boasting a homey, Dan Fogelberg-esque nostalgia in both tone and style, Drexel Rayford’s Cherokee Road takes a series of long looks back — something that makes for a charming (if not especially challenging) trip.

Rayford has done most of the work here himself too, which also likely fed into the interior feel of the album. He plays almost all of the instruments on Cherokee Road, save for a few timely assists from vocalist/guitarist Bob Amos and the rhythm section of Ricardo and Roberto Midici. Rayford even took the landscape photography that graces the CD booklet. Other family members helped out on the album cover design, and with additional photos.

Together, all of that viscerally transports the listener back to simpler times, a journey that begins with a bang. “I Care About You” comes charging out with a uncluttered, riffy joy reminiscent of Fogelberg, or the 1970s country-rock band America. The chorus, a simple repetitive refrain of the title, holds this similar old-school simplicity, too.

Rayford couldn’t sound any less of this day and age than when he sings “I don’t care if you’re left or right or crooked.” His music is honest in a heartfelt, easy-going way, something increasingly hard to find in a world overstuffed with desk-pounding broadcast talking heads. Later, with “Mountain Climber,” Rayford draws an even more direct line to Fogelberg when he sings “way up above the ground, higher than birds ever flew,” an almost dead-on impression of the hit “Longer.”

Along the way, Rayford also offers the blatantly nostalgic “I Wanna Be Bart Starr,” referencing the NFL quarterback who led Green Bay to victories at the first two Super Bowls in the late 1960s. The song uses a down-to-earth heartland logic to underscore the anxiety associated with transitioning from gangly youth to fully vested adult. “If I could be Bart Starr, then I would be a winner,” Rayford sings, over a thumping jangle. “If I could be Bart Starr, I wouldn’t be who I am.” From the ’60s, Rayford travels further back into age-old gospel and bluegrass, beginning with “Warmth of Living Light” as Rayford accompanies himself on piano in a quiet plea for peace and for a greater understanding of the Lord’s grace. “Back on the Slide,” with this loping, lackadaisical rhythm, is so inviting that it’s only on a closer listen that the song’s message comes into focus: Rayford’s ne’er-do-well main character, on the brink of another misadventure, is desperately looking to God for help.

“Be Thou My Vision,” based on a traditional Celtic melody, is a touching retelling of an eighth century Irish monastic lyric. Rayford, with this smart assist from Amos on lead acoustic guitar, then skips through the lilting “Roll Call,” a meditation on the final judgment of our life’s accomplishments that went to No. 1 on the bluegrass gospel charts for the band Front Range in 2002. The instrumental “Etude de Dude,” meanwhile, is a delicate rumination, performed with style and emotion. “White Dove,” a quick-stepping bluegrass romp, takes on this contagious joy as Rayford talks about love’s redemptive qualities. The more conventionally gospel-tinged “Benediction,” which translated means “good word,” takes flight with a concluding vocal arrangement that seems to ascend upward.

There are moments of perfectly wrought humor too, as on “Sunset in Santa Fe,” a pleasant little road song that finds Rayford seeking an escape from the big-city rat race. As he imagines a trip across the country’s middle section toward friends under the wide Western skies, Rayford’s colorful imagination blends with memories of previous visits. “Everybody’s cool and everybody’s artsy,” Rayford sings, propelled along by a Latin-inspired guitar signature. “Everybody there lives in a house of adobe.” Next comes a neat twist, though, as Rayford eventually calls up his pals to admit something: “I don’t have the money, but I’m gonna keep dreaming of Santa Fe.”

Rayford’s writerly eye for detail also lightens story songs like “Scotty Plays the Blues,” the fleet “Trailer Park Job” and what could have been a maudlin longing to reconnect with faraway family members on the title track. “How we’d gather ’round the table, and chatter and cuss and crow,” he sings, “and bask in the warm light of Cherokee Road.” That winking moment of realism saves the song from descending into easy cliché, even if it, like much of Cherokee Road, doesn’t necessarily blaze a new trail.

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