Some dust just won’t wash off. Ask roots country songwriter Cahalen Morrison. His new album, The Flower of Muscle Shoals (out Aug 19 on Free Dirt Records), with his full band Country Hammer, is caked with the dust of the American Southwest. It’s the dust of a childhood growing up in Northern New Mexico; days spent exploring lost canyons, hiking hillsides covered in cottonwoods, and discovering old ghost towns. It’s also the dust of nostalgia, the kind of reflection of a just-married man looking back towards the inspirations of his youth.
Cahalen Morrison grew up surrounded by the deep roots of country music; he played in his first country (and ranchero) band as a precocious 13 year old. Leaving New Mexico as a young man, his music began to branch out. “I did what every teenager does, and decided to go down the rock, and whatever road,” Cahalen explains. “But then I came back around to acoustic music, and now back to country. I love the focus on singing and the songs; I love the deep sincerity, the absurd humor… But obviously, overall, I really just love the music.” That full circle journey enabled Cahalen to develop a sound that sets him apart from other country artists.
Exploring acoustic roots music and touring internationally with his acclaimed Seattle duo Cahalen Morrison & Eli West, he learned from the guidance of friends like Tim O’Brien and Kelly Joe Phelps. With his new project, Cahalen Morrison & Country Hammer, and his new album, he’s taken all these influences and distilled them into a new form of American roots music, at once literate and profound, but written in the language of the country greats.
While offering up the comforting sounds of country and western’s roots, The Flower of Muscle Shoals plays more like a new classic than a dusty Nashville relic. That’s because, as a lyricist, Cahalen Morrison points much further afield than the lynchpins of country that he grew up listening to.
As a songwriter, he draws from influences like literary legend Gabriél Garcia Marquez, Swedish naturalist poet Tomas Tranströmer, cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell, and especially the author Cormac McCarthy. As Cahalen says, “The sparse quality of McCarthy’s writing allows the reader to do much of the work themselves.” It’s a credo he follows in his songwriting, for though he’s adept at crafting the quick metaphors and turns-of-phrases that define country songwriting, there are images in The Flower of Muscle Shoals that stay with you well beyond the last note.
Cahalen Morrison now lives in Seattle with his wife, for whom he wrote the lovely title track (she’s from Muscle Shoals, AL). His band, Country Hammer, features some of the best Americana musicians in the Northwest and beyond: Country Dave Harmonson (Zoe Muth) on pedal steel, Jim Miller (Donna The Buffalo, Preston Frank) on guitar and additional vocals, Robert Adesso on guitar/harmony vocals, Mary Simkin-Maass on fiddle, Ethan Lawton on drums, and Michael Thomas Connolly (Coyote Grace) on bass and accordion. Recorded at Empty Sea Studios in Seattle, Cahalen Morrison & Country Hammer move through The Flower of Muscle Shoals with the precision of two- steppers on a honky-tonk dance floor. They prove, like Zoe Muth, Loretta Lynn, and Buck Owens before them, that the Northwest is a hotbed for true country roots. These days, Cahalen Morrison may be far from his Southwest roots, but he hasn’t forgotten the lessons of great country music: tell a story, keep it short, let the listener do the work. When you hear the dusty sounds of Cahalen Morrison & Country Hammer rising from the grooves of your record, you’ll know this is music built to last.