by Jason A. Bermiller
Appalachian Soul is how Justin Mychals announces his style when doing his live gigs and live streams. It’s a fitting way to describe Mychals’ brand of country and country-folk. While many artists are concerned with what will sell on commercially-driven
stations, Mychals remains true to his vision. After interviewing Justin and getting to know him quite well over the past several weeks, I can say that Lilac holds the full range of Mychals’ songwriting and performance abilities. His music has grit and
tenderness, stoicism and kindness, humour and sincerity. Most of all, his album holds the concept that a good story gets told if, as Justin puts it, the songwriter just “gets out of the way”. He has lived by that value. Ever-mindful of his colourful ancestry,
Mychals crafts some of his songs around the “miners and ‘shiners” in his family tree. In fact, his fanbase is called “Shiner Nation”, a direct reference to Mychals’ family’s past involvement in making moonshine. This rich history feeds some of the songs he sings on Lilac.
The album opens with “All That Was”, co-written with Justin’s long-time friend Jeff Lane. A joyful look at the past as Mychals likes to remember it, “All That Was” combines song titles and lyrics from classic country and country-flavoured rock songs. This is
reminiscent of the best of tribute songs, but with a hint of the sophistication similar to Allanah Myles’ “Black Velvet”, but in much lighter vein and mood.
That bright, fun opener is countered with “Kudzu Kreepin’”, a spooky, mysterious song that brings up images of fog-shrouded trees, of mythical, malignant creatures in mountain forests. Listening to this song, the listener is lead down a foreboding path winding
around trees drooping with witches’ hair. The song evokes the same creepy folk tales that are shared around a roaring fire.
The title track tells the story of Mychal’s grandfather, a man who suffered addiction but left a remarkable impression. A melancholic tone pervades the song, a sincere country ballad that is more reminiscent of songs by bygone country artists. Avoiding a descent
into hurtin’ songs, the album shifts to a song that took Mychals many years to perfect. “I had the hook for “Build Me A Bar” when I was 19, but it wasn’t until I recorded the album that I had the whole song worked out properly.” A humorous, fun song, “Build Me
A Bar” is often requested at Mychals’ gigs and online streaming concerts. Bordering on but not quite a novelty song, “Build Me A Bar” has that appeal of a Rudyard Kipling “Just So” story mixed with a dash of “Friends In Low Places”, this time explaining why a
man’s car has become a honky tonk bar. Some of the rhyming in “Build Me A Bar” is incredibly clever. Referring to the car as a “four-wheeled honky tonk libation creation… parked in their backyard”, Mychals brings an image that many an Appalachian blue-collar
worker would love to come home to. Punctuated by a lively fiddle solo, “Build Me A Bar” is a somewhat silly but appealing song.
One weakness of the album is that the production feels like it’s set about 15 to 20 years ago. While traditional country certainly still has a great following (and always will), the timbre of several of the instruments just feels a little less current than other
albums of country and country folk. Nevertheless, there are gems on this album.
“Ain’t No Outlaw To It”, another melancholic glance back to an era when singer songwriters made enough to make a living, thumps out a traditional honky tonk foot-stomper with shades of classic southern rock. Openly referring to “Jones” and “Haggard” and Hank Williams
Sr., Mychals persists in the traditional country vein, countering anything that drove the trend to creating a genre called “outlaw”. This is a song that you could expect to show up on a classic country album. That’s the beauty of Mychals’ songs: there is no
second-guessing what and who he’s referencing, because he’s referencing gold.
“Down South” is another oft-requested tune in Mychals repertoire. Once again moving through a slightly melancholic mood, “Down South” calls out for the yearning to return to a time, not just a place. That’s a hallmark of Justin Mychals’ songs: his stories have
full settings, including a time period, sometimes the present, often the past, but a past that Mychals wants you to believe existed. And it did exist… in the foggy rear-view of the pick-up truck we all wished we had driven down that dusty highway.
Lilac concludes with another song co-written with Jeff Lane titled “Momma’s Angel”. Country music has never been a stranger to including the supernatural, perhaps because of its ties to gospel music. Once again, Mychals delivers a song that has a powerful story
line about a man at the end of his rope. This isn’t a hurtin’ song, nor is it a spiritual or gospel song, nor is it a song about a scary myth. Telling the story of a man who has lost the woman he loved, this song ends with a supernatural twist. It took several
rewrites with Jeff Lane for Justin Mychals to sense that the story had been fully told. Set and written in a motel room, “Momma’s Angel” is a song that Mychals always introduces with the idea that we all have a guardian angel, whether we believe it or not.
In all, Lilac is a trip through several stories, told with clarity and sophistication. At this writing, Justin Mychals is in the studio about to release an EP. If he stays on track to what he accomplished on Lilac, the results will be enjoyable.
Artist: Justin Mychals
Release Date: September, 2018
Label: [Independent Release]
Justin Mychals: Guitars, Vocals
Kenneth Smith: Drums and Percussion
Greg Watson: Bass
Dean Black: Dobros
Evie Andrus: Fiddle
Laura Cash: Fiddle on “Between The Whiskey And Me”
1. All That Was, 4:49
2. Kudzu Kreepin, 5:24
3. Lilac, 4:05
4. Build Me A Bar, 3:48
5. Ain’t No Outlaw To It, 4:51
6. Between The Whiskey And Me, 3:55
7. Howlin’ Moon, 3:32
8. Down South, 3:39
9. Throwin This One Back, 3:09
10. Beer Pressure, 3:28
11. Momma’s Angel, 5:00