[COUNTRY] James Low has his proverbial shit together. After years without inspiration—his 2009 The Blackguard’s Waltz EP was the first release since what Low calls an “awful” 2004 live album—the longtime Portland singer-songwriter has a new band, a fiancée, plans to quit his day job and tour Europe, and a new album out with another on the horizon. The future looks so bright, in fact, that Low can hardly focus on his excellent new disc, Whiskey Farmer, which he refers to as “the country record.” “The pop record” is on his mind.
“The pop record is the first time I shifted gears from exorcisms to being something where I felt like I had a little more control over myself—where I started turning into an artist rather than the depressed drunk who wrote songs in order to not kill himself,” Low says. “A lot of these songs on the country record are still songs as me, just as a mess.”
Of course, the best country songs are penned by messes, and Whiskey Farmer—a concept album of sorts about a musician who’s “too much of a fuckup to be successful in the straight world and not committed enough of a fuckup to be a rock star”—is loaded with great tunes of varying messiness. The concept record tag is a bit misleading, because unlike Low’s sometimes wrist-slittingly dark debut, Mexiquita, and rootsy sophomore effort, Blackheart, Whiskey Farmer avoids shacking up with a particular sound. Instead, Low’s band—the Western Front—plays twangy pop of all stripes. The result is a record that feels less like a mural and more like a stack of postcards sent from a Western road trip.
Low is quick to credit his band for the sound, but admits it has taken him years to grow into the role of bandleader, and despite the fact Low often played with ace musicians from the LaurelThirst scene where he cut his teeth, the musical vision wasn’t always clear. “We played this show where the doorman was like, ‘You guys are awesome—you’re like a cross between Neil Young and Dave Matthews,’” Low says. “I was ready to quit right there. I thought, if I’m reminding some dude of Dave Matthews, then I’m just totally fucked. I’m doing this wrong.”
Low won’t remind anyone of Dave Matthews on Whiskey Farmer, which finds his songwriting chops and vocals stronger than ever. His bold-but-warbling voice warms the shambling honky-tonk of “Stars Don’t Care” and stretches out over the Laurel Canyon-meets-Elliott Smith ballad “Thinking California.” There’s a little early Elvis Costello bitterness on “Medicine Show” (“They got a miracle cure that’ll stop your pain/ But when you run out you won’t ever feel the same/ At the medicine show”) and more than a hint of Bruce Springsteen on churchy closer “A Little More Time.”
No matter how wide its stylistic net is cast, Whiskey Farmer feels focused. And after some years in the wilderness, Low is, too. He feels lucky that anyone is still paying attention. “I always thought of Oregon as this laid-back place, but if you take time off you’ll get your ass handed to you, creatively,” he says. “If you fade out on a heartbreak for a year, you can go from up-and-coming to has-been in no time at all.”