In these divisive and uncertain times, one thing we can all agree on is our collective longing for the triumphant return of the Turnpike Troubadours. In fact, the world has seemed to spin more and more out of control ever since that fateful day in May 2019 when the most beloved band in all of independent (country) music announced their indefinite hiatus. Their departure left a hole in the hearts of many and an even bigger chasm in the world of live music, where no band could quite capture their magic. And then, nearly a year later, Turnpike fiddle player Kyle Nix came barreling down the mountain to ease that ache in our hearts, with cases of bootlegged liquor and the promise of a debut record on the way. The backing band would be none other than the Troubadours themselves, and indeed, this album gives us our Turnpike fix in terms of sonic consideration, especially when it comes to the heavy doses of fiddle applied all over this project as one would expect. But more importantly, this is not a Turnpike album, and Kyle Nix makes a case for himself here as not just a fantastic fiddle player, but also a singer and songwriter in his own right, with plenty of stories to tell and a compelling voice to deliver them.
Inspired by his love for Ennio Morricone and spaghetti westerns, Nix set out to make a record with a front cover and back cover, played out in two instrumental numbers, with a collection of stories in between. It’s a concept record, yes, but instead of one overarching tale, this feels like a group of highly developed, sometimes loosely interwoven episodes, more like something musically equivalent to Pulp Fiction than to a spaghetti western. Sometimes these stories feel extremely personal to Nix, like the album’s second track, “Manifesto,” where he sings of occasionally feeling like his accomplishments are nothing compared with those of a grandfather who fought the Nazis and a father who served in Vietnam; ultimately, he comes to recognize their sacrifices as helping to allow him to choose his own path as a musician and songwriter. More often than not, however, these tales are of other characters and events, little snapshots into these people’s lives written down in order to tell us a story and to convey something to us about the human condition.
The commonality in all of these songs is how intricately crafted they are, how each story is brimming with little details that help us to relate to these characters. It’s a seventeen-track opus, and yet none of these selections are underdeveloped; nothing could be called filler. “Woman of Steel” is such a simple song on the surface, merely painting the picture of a man in a once happy marriage who has now found himself living with the "woman of steel.” But this song is so much more poignant as each detail is revealed, from the family coming into the house in fours and fives for Thanksgiving dinner to the way he tries to touch his wife’s waist in the hallway, only to have her pull away from him in indifference. It’s such an honest picture, drawing the listener in to sympathize with this poor man. Similarly, we are captured by the narrator of “Good Girl Down the Road,” who pines for his best friends wife and has been in love with her since 1991, as he lovingly tells us little things about her like her "dust bowl twang” and her capacity to drink whiskey even while swearing she disapproves of it. The title track elicits such a vivid image when the red-faced man lights everything with his cigar that we can certainly see why Billy wants to take his revenge, or as Billy himself so eloquently puts it, why "tonight that son of a bitch is gonna light his cigar with the help of hellfire.” The same vivid imagery can be attributed to all of these episodes; Kyle Nix certainly has a gift for storytelling, and not only that, for telling a story in three or four minutes and yet capturing a specificity and poetry rarely found among even veteran songwriters. Story songs have been so important to country music over the years, and it’s wonderful to see such a natural storyteller picking up the torch.
Sonically, as previously mentioned, this is very much like a Turnpike release. It’s brimming with fiddle, and not just melodic solos and licks, but also rhythmic fiddle helping to drive the beat, as is the case on any Troubadours project. There are plenty of upbeat songs like the title track and “Shelby ‘65” which draw sonic comparisons to Turnpike songs such as “Before the Devil Knows We’re Dead” or “The Winding Stair Mountain Blues,” along with steel-soaked ballads like “Lonesome For You” to appeal to the lovers of a more traditional country sound. A couple of bluegrass numbers find their way onto the record as well, serving to separate Kyle Nix’s solo sound a bit from that of the Troubadours.
Overall, this separation from Turnpike Troubadours is the most important takeaway from this excellent album. It’s great to hear these guys making music together again, but more than that, Kyle Nix has come racing down the mountain to make a name for himself independent of this band. This is not just some side project or lark while Turnpike remains on hiatus; rather, this is the debut record of a fine songwriter with an arsenal of stories to share with us all. And if there is one blessing that has come out of all this uncertainty, it’s that we had the opportunity to discover the tales and talent of Kyle Nix.
Lightning on the Mountain is available everywhere you consume fine music.