Darryl Gregory – Big Texas Sky (2012)

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Boasting a Americana twang but also a rough moral sensibility and a cutting way with an image, Darryl Gregory’s Big Texas Sky is probably too edgy for country radio. It’s a shame.

Tracks like “Anywhere But Here,” “How Do I Tell Her” and “Working Man” pair swooning country laments with these hard-eyed measurements of damaged lives, tough choices and a country’s promises unkept. Gregory boasts a writerly attention to detail — something that, to paraphrase “Anywhere But Here,” keeps the best moments from Big Texas Sky from becoming a different book, but the same old story.

The opening segment of “Aunt Jean’s Piano” has the lasting emotional impact of a family recording, something passed down from one generation to the next, as Gregory is joined at first only by a fragile female voice and the aforementioned piano. When Gregory then moves into a touching, acoustic-driven rumination on the instrument’s place as a centerpiece of so many long-treasured memories, as he’s joined by a series of perfectly placed accompanists.

It’s a quiet and emotional triumph, and also something that stands in direct contrast to “Elegy for an Old Man” — which moves with an unyielding sense of lonely anger. Here, his main character has tried to invest in the happiness of others, has tried to do right, but has nevertheless ended up broken and alone.

Big Texas Sky doesn’t simply push forward the old bromides about this being a joint-stock world, and how we’re all in it together. Gregory makes it clear that there are winners and losers here, in life and in love. Throughout, he asks the big questions — and lets in big emotions.

“Prayer and Hallelujah,” for instance, is a wonder — at first, a heavy-rocking number, then a soul-lifting shout as Gregory sings the praises of steadfast faith and staying the course. “What About Love,” a sensual duet, embraces the uncertainty of passion, since that’s part of the journey, too.

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