Editor’s note: This part of a series of pieces written for Nine Bullets by special guest artists, creators and other friends of the site. Jon Bartel fronts Creston Line and is the guitarist for American Dirt
“God don’t bet on football games,” Matt Woods growls on the opening track of his new record How to Survive, and watching his career over the past few years, it’s obvious he’s not hedging any bets on divine intervention in the music business either. There are few artists who work harder, who tour more relentlessly than Woods, as he searches for, as Bukowski put it, “the next line that finally breaks through, finally says it.” Despite (or maybe because of) the long odds, the snow-piled highways and hills, Woods keeps moving, and this newest record keeps his streak alive, following up 2014’s With Love from Brushy Mountain in a bit gentler but equally powerful fashion.
Due for release on October 7, How to Survive blends Woods’ well-worn, musical stylings with a tenderness that seems to be born from the heart of a man who spends a lot of time alone, wrestling with growing older, grasping for something in that fine, misty space between sweet memory and bitter regret.
Recorded once again at Shed 55 in Knoxville, the album opens with a classic Woods-style tune, “The American Way.” Featuring top-notch lyrical content right from the opening lines (“Some men war in the desert heat / daddy fought hard so his kids could eat / workin’ metal in a mill on Industrial Street / we’re still waiting on his purple heart”) the lead track puts its finger solidly on the pulse of current social issues while ushering in the new collection of songs with some familiar fiddle, stomp and swing that will remind fans of other favorites such as “Company Town” and “Brushy Mountain.”
The second track blazes different trails- titled “Fireflies,” the tune tenderly enshrines an enviable couple as the benchmark for bliss; Woods’ lyrics invite an unnamed counterpart to share that same ethereal (and, judging by the songs that follow, ill-fated) shot at long-term happiness. The chorus flirts cleverly with two conceits: “We’d waltz through the Wintertime / Two-step into Spring / Slowdance with fireflies on Summer nights / Fall in love over again.” While many purveyors of the genre Woods slings sometimes privilege simplicity to a fault, there is no lack of depth here. Combining the classic country-western thematic element of dance-as-life with the eastern, Beat-esque movement of the seasons from birth toward demise, “Fireflies” is arguably the standout track on How to Survive, amongst many contenders. Personally, it puts me in mind of Jason Isbell’s “Flagship;” Woods has created a foil that absolutely stands up both lyrically and aesthetically to that of his songwriting contemporary.
“Bound to Lose,” cuts back to a thread (or a string, if you like, considering the song’s continual references to being “tied up in guitar strings”) that runs through much of the lyrical content on this record- the road. While less apocalyptic than Cormack McCarthy’s vision of it, the road in Woods’ songs is indeed one that runs out into a darkness. Both “Bound to Lose” (co-written with Jeff Shepherd, whose album Woods recently produced) and the next track, “Good Man” deal with the transient nature of the artist; and while the former song resignedly glorifies the pleasures of “old guitars and hotel bars,” the latter sets out a sort of obituary for the man who’s pushed the road to it’s limit, quite literally.
“Good Man” bats cleanup in the album order, and with good reason- the song is a hard-hitter. It’s tough not to pause and reflect on the line “He’s lyin’ there as still as he can be / Lifeless on that shoulder lookin’ just like me / It’s the story of a good man / didn’t have a fighting chance / who made a stand anyway / He never got a headstone / most folks could have never known he passed away.” There’s a wide, populist appeal to the song’s central existential query, but for Woods and those like him trudging across the continent year after year, there’s a real question of legitimacy being raised here. Three records in, Matt seems to be weighing two scales against each other- the traditional metric of monetary success that holds the significant weight of that uniquely disgusting American tabloid cult of (im)personality against that airy bronze plate of the artist and his self-recognized, self-loved, self-loathed, always barroom-bared oversoul. Woods’ existential hero accepts death in a ditch but refuses to see it as an unfit ending; besides, snow melts, and somebody is bound to find the corpse, right?
Bittersweet human relationships and the roads that both bring them together and peel them apart run strong as rivers through the rest of the record. Woods works these themes out in song as it seems he’s worked them over and over in his mind as he moves city to city, bar to bar. As with all of his best work, these songs are deeply personal- he admitted last time I spoke with him that he was a bit afraid that those he wrote for and about would have no difficulty finding themselves in the lyrics, and I suspect he’s right. In “Bedsheets” (a track that will be familiar to those who’ve caught Matt’s live shows over the past couple of years) he longs for a reliving of those most intimate moments of a long relationship defined by separation. “Hang our bedroom sheets out on the line / air out all this lonely we been through,” pleads the chorus; to Woods’ credit, it feels like true regret rather than melancholic posturing; indeed, there are a lot of lines on this record that stand up as particularly authentic, and “Bedsheets” is chock-full of them. “You had my word / even though my hat don’t like to hang at home / knowing that these boots would always make me roam / a heart’s a heavy thing to leave behind” pulls exactly zero punches.
As with Woods himself, it’s not all gloom and regret- “Tonight (Don’t Let Me Down)” is a sly grin in the face what sometimes must feel like a bleak routine of unfamiliar barrooms and strange faces, and there are plenty of foot-tapping arrangements throughout How to Survive that provide a welcome glimpse into the true power of Matt’s songwriting ability- whether it’s just the man himself on stage with his signature tobacco-burst Guild and ice blue eyes hollering past the mic into a suddenly tomb-silent crowd, or the swelling pedal steel, sawmill fiddle and lush, verby telecaster of the full band pouring out the hi-fi, these songs are another step forward for a musician who tries his damndest not to look back for too long. God might not bet on football games, but I’ll bet She sure as hell regrets not preordering this record. You’re gonna love it.
– Jon Bartel