photo by Bow Smith
words by Laura Barton
"One thing that’s maybe particular to the Midwest is a sincerity that can be mistaken for
melodrama,” says Wes Tirey. “I don’t think these are Southern songs. I obviously don’t think it’s a New York album, an LA album; not a Nashville album. I think these songs and these
characters really exist in the geography of the Midwest.” Tirey’s 10th release — his first for Dear Life, is an intimate study of the Midwestern condition. A double album, it tells of silos like chapels, spiders in the cane, of drunkards and saints and fugitives; it speaks of wild geese, and the good life, rhinestone suits, Coca Colas, and dishes drying on the rack. That sincerity and melodrama resides in the candor and weight of these songs — its playing and arrangements, rich but unfettered, and Tirey’s voice grown several feet deeper and more sonorous. It is a sublime expansion of a trademark style he has come to call “rustic minimalism”.
Tirey is well-placed as a chronicler of the American Midwest. He was raised in Farmersville,Ohio, a small village some 20 minutes southwest of Dayton, where the landscape of corn and wheat and wide skies “has always been something that’s been part of me.” He bought his first guitar at 14, and soon began to explore the world of Americana, though his tastes were not wholly in keeping with the place, or the times. By senior year in high school, Tirey felt “like I
was the only person in Farmersville, Ohio who knew who Wilco and The Old 97’s were.” Undaunted, he soon became a regular face in the Dayton songwriter scene — playing regularly at the famed Canal St. Tavern, who once booked the likes of Townes Van Zandt and John Fahey. Following a move to North Carolina, he dedicated himself afresh to writing, playing, recording. He went on to share the stage with artists such as Kath Bloom, Tyler Ramsey, Steve Gunn, Daniel Bachman, Ryley Walker, among many more. There have been releases via Tompkins Square, and Scissor Tail, Noumenal Loom, Full Spectrum, and Patient Sounds; EPs, full albums, split records, instrumentals, all distinct and diverse and compelling. “The parallel for me is some albums are kind of like a novella, and some albums are like a short story collection,” Tirey says.“Some are a novel, some are flash fiction. It just depends on the kind of aesthetic world the song, in some cases songs, ends up existing in, and finding the right way to present it.” There was something about Midwest’s 18 songs that lent themselves to a double album — though the two sides are in fact separated by time and geography. The first was recorded in late 2019, at a cabin in Sandy Mush; the second set down last December, after-hours at Bagatelle Books, in Asheville, both in the company of Tirey’s longtime friend and collaborator, Ryan Gustafson (Hiss Golden Messenger, Phil Cook, Charlie Parr).
It was a quite different process for Tirey — looser, more exploratory, more collaborative. “Ryan and I recorded it like every song was its own open canvas for us to work on,” he says. “I think it sounds loose and raw in all of the right ways, and even when it has a lot more instrumental ornamentation, it sounds like it’s all supposed to be there.” The new resonance of his voice Tirey credits largely to the steadiness of experience. “I think I needed time for my voice to find itself,” he says. “I was always in a place of singing where I wasn’t exactly sure what my voice was supposed to sound like, or be doing. But I think it finally landed in someplace.” A similar timelessness has also settled over his songwriting. “I think the grand arbiter in terms of judging your own work is simplicity,” Tirey says. “Whether I try to be conscious of it or not, it’s a matter of simplifying the material, whether it’s the lyrical content, the structure, the arrangement. It’s making sure that there is enough material in there, without giving too much away.”
The collection of songs on Album One, recall the landscape of Tirey’s early years. These are songs of both “Tractor wheel, bramble thorn” and “Bacon grease, egg in a hole.” “I think of songs like Red Corn, Yellow Corn and Bang the Drum Slowly as very Ohio-world landscapes,” he says. “Part-rural, part industrial, even at some points part-strip mall, mixed in with some bar-room type songs.” Album Two finds its footing in Arkansas, a tip of the hat to the poet Frank Stanford, whose poem, Sudden Opera, Tirey uses to open Midwest’s accompanying chapbook of lyrics and prose-poems: “In Arkansas the liquor costs,” it begins. “The wind lifts a finger/ And that is all”. “Stanford changed my life,” Tirey says. “He seemed like everything that I loved about French surrealism, and minimalist poetry, mixed with the Blues, and American Southern Gothic; this spellbinding combination of worlds in one poetic experience.” Tirey stresses the word 'experience’. “You don’t understand a Frank Stanford poem, you just absorb it, and I think my music, too, is more of a listening, absorbing experience than an intellectual exercise.” The album is also somewhat indebted to Raymond Carver, a writer Tirey has been “reading and re-reading since I was 21 years old.” Carver’s influence is there in the unflinching simplicity of Tirey’s lyrics, and in the half-borrowed line “would you please be quiet, please be quiet, please” in the track Fugitive. But also elsewhere — the exquisite My Father at 22 Years, for example, is something of a direct homage to Carver’s poem Photograph of My Father in His Twenty-Second Year. Like Carver and Stanford, Tirey’s songs have long shown a keen eye for character. When he speaks of his songwriting process, it is often these characters that lead him: “You get an idea for a song with a character in mind who you know, very specifically, is going to be the main character,” he says. “And other times you’re writing a line, or a verse comes, and you start to think ‘Who is it that’s telling this story?’ Sometimes it’s not so much a character as a narrator. Or sometimes it’s really just a voice that’s not your own, but a voice that you have to construct to filter the material.” He cites as an example the song Life is Good, Life is Sweet, its narrator satisfied by Camel lights, whiskey sours, and women: “I always imagine that character to be an Applebee’s happy hour visitor, a salesperson, maybe.” Or the two riders of Wild Blue Yonder in the throes of what Tirey calls a “midwest prairie romance.” Or the narrator of Wanda, a track inspired by the 1970 movie written, directed and starring Barbara Loden, about a woman from Pennsylvania who accidentally goes on the run with a bank robber. In Tirey’s hands, it is part American love song, part alibi, part complicity: “If the cops come,” he sings, “If your husband comes/ Run.”
The recurring voice through the songs of Album Two he regards as “a kind of Jack Nicholson character in Five Easy Pieces, a kind of gentleman recluse, but kind of an asshole at the same time.” There he is in the song Arkansas, betting his wedding ring at the casino, racking up a DUI and a disorderly conduct. “He’s probably the kind of guy who would be fun to hang out with,” Tirey notes. “But you wouldn’t want to spend too much time with him.” This assemblage of strangers and stories and snapshots of lives, Tirey likens to “the book of
photographs that you find at a Goodwill” — perhaps in Dayton, or Fayetteville, or in any of the stops on the highways that separate them. And while there are clues laid out across these lyrics, he believes there is an open-endedness to these songs. “I think it’s up to the listener to decide who these characters are,” he says. “And what they’re doing. And what’s happening to them.” Still, the clues carry us on, into this land of high corn and pool halls, of farmboys, rusty Fords, and fathers like Elvis. Blue herons, hearts of steel, vinegar and piss; a land where people might rise “with everything to show, strong and comely as a colt.” They are songs told straight and sincere, but that are nonetheless beguiling; the work of a master songwriter, a craftsman, an artist; a man who will always be part of the Midwest.
releases on DLR: