Mike McGuire’s new six-song Americana EP Kentucky Morning takes the themes and atmospheres of 2011’s Beyond the Ark to a darker, more contemplative place. Even his lone cover, the Rolling Stones’ bleak “No Expectations,” speaks to a project surrounded by heartache and misfortune, by an over-riding sense of impending trouble.
McGuire begins with an easy going-enough cadence, sounding like a woodsier John Prine on the EP’s title track. There’s even the pitter-patter of bongos from Rick Ennis, but McGuire sings a traveling man’s lament with a baleful sorrow – even as his guitar tangles with Phil Stirgwolt’s, Together, they create a sound that more often dives into the bottom of every country holler, rather than soaring past the next blue-hued ridge. McGuire then returns to the lyric, sadder still, it seems.
“Walking in the Shadows (26 Bells)” positively bursts out after that, with McGuire joined by a thwacking beat courtesy of drummer Paul Woods. Despite the boisterous new setting, however, McGuire’s vocal remains weathered and low – recalling Bruce Springsteen at this most introspective. Stirgwolt’s solo on the electric is a scalding indictment. Rachel Blanton’s plaintive fiddle then gives “I Don’t Go Around (Feeling Sorry for Myself)” a timeless stoicism, even as McGuire channels the writerly adroitness of Steve Forbert’s early albums on a song that pulls no punches about life’s inequities. “Ain’t no ATM,” McGuire drawls, in a stinging rebuke, “on the other side.”
“Everybody’s Got a Religion” finds McGuire’s group expanding to include Bob Ramsey on Hammond B-3, while Ennis switches to a lightly swinging cadence on the drums. McGuire’s vocals grow slower still, though, moving like a shiver in a stormy night as he delves into matters of faith and falsities – even as Ramsey adds these note-perfect twilit asides. McGuire catches a country-inflected groove on “Texas Fireball,” reconnecting with the feel of his Prine-sounding opening track, as he settles into a story-song about growing up with a dream of playing baseball that was changed forever when his father – who nurtured that dream – was cut down by cancer, and then by his own injury.
McGuire closes with a ruminative take “No Expectations,” toning down the careening slide-guitar signature found on the original version from 1968’s Beggar’s Banquet – and, thus, giving the song an even deeper sense of desolation. Ramsey returns on B-3, but only to provide atmospherics for a searching, simply heart-breaking turn by Stirgwolt. In this way, Kentucky Morning ends with another foreboding warning about the temporary nature of love, and of life. Those lines originally came courtesy of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, but they couldn’t sound anymore at home on this quiet but insistently connective EP.