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10 March 2021

Israel Nash’s Topaz: sun-baked country rock in need of some frankness

On his sixth album, the Americana musician subtly queries his place in a genre long associated with conservatism.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

“How long will old Sam let it slide?/Not gonna let it happen twice,” croons Israel Nash on “Down in the Country”, a saxophone-fuelled surge of a song that considers how recent economic hardships of rural America have affected its people’s perspective of the world. Bolstered by an organ and Moog synthesiser, the track swells into a sultry blues ballad. “Past the brush and past the sticks/We keep to ourselves/Down on farm road 76,” Nash sings.

The Americana musician has said that he did not intend to make a political statement on his sixth studio album, and wanted instead to offer a simple space for reflection during a tumultuous time. The emotional burdens that weigh on Nash seep through only subtly in his lyrics: here is a musician, born in Missouri and now living and working in rural Texas, who has built his career playing songs with folk and country roots – music of the southern states that has long been associated with conservatism and small-town values. But his politics don’t fit that mould – he made that much clear on 2015’s Silver Season, and again when he contributed backing vocals to the folk singer Anthony D’Amato’s anti-Trump protest EP in 2017. “I see a wave of freedom/Speaking straight and speaking loud/The yankee man led you astray/Now everyone has to pay,” he sings now, somewhat obliquely. Where does Nash, musically anchored to country culture and yet reckoning with his political estrangement from it, fit in?

Sonically, Topaz follows straight on from Nash’s previous five records of sun-baked, meticulously produced cosmic country rock that call to mind Neil Young or Jonathan Wilson. This time he recorded much of the album alone in Plum Creek Sound, the Quonset studio he built on his ranch, with friends occasionally stopping by to contribute to the project. It was supposedly Nash’s most solitary recording experience yet, though you wouldn’t guess that from the album’s expansive sound: the electric guitar lines of “Southern Coasts” are so intricately layered they become mesmerising, while “Howling Wind”, which begins with just Nash’s rough vocals, grows to a rich chorus boosted by backing singers. That Nash sought out solitude to figure out the complexities of where his musical and political allegiances overlap and part ways makes sense, but it’s clear he realised such revelations rely on the support and advice of others, too. “Great things happen when we get the truth,” Nash told American Songwriter last year. “We come together and we act on it. We really are all in this together. Remember that – now, more than ever.” 

[See also: Ellen Peirson-Hagger interviews Julien Baker]

Nash leans into clichés of the country genre, as if towing the line of just how many of its tropes he can get away with using while he figures out his place in the culture. On “Canyonheart”, a passionate love song, his voice trills over harmonica and slide guitar, his despair exaggerated by the instruments’ distinctive wheezy sound. “My heart is a canyon/The flashing flood won’t drown you out,” he sings in a melody that is galvanising, if not particularly novel. He turns to natural imagery too on “Sutherland Springs” (“They prayed for rain but the steel came on down/How many will they keep putting in the ground”) and “Closer” (“Out here on the prairie/Wishing you were close to me/Sure as the cold wind blows these stones/In east Wyoming”), looking to the earthy landscape that holds the country values with which he wrestles. 

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Left-leaning country musicians stand in an awkward position, fearful of losing Republican fans and country radio support if they display their true political beliefs, and under pressure from the left to make those beliefs known. Taylor Swift, who emerged from the country music landscape in the mid noughties, has only in the past three years spoken specifically about endorsing Democrat candidates in elections. Dolly Parton, a red-state icon, runs a programme that supplies children with free books and last year donated $1m dollars to Covid-19 vaccine research, but remains silent on party politics. When the Chicks (previously known as the Dixie Chicks) told a 2003 London audience that they did not support the Iraq War and were “ashamed” to share their home state of Texas with the then president George W Bush, they were blacklisted from the country scene, their record sales dramatically affected.

Israel Nash exists in a quieter, more alternative sphere, yet he takes musical inspiration from the same cultural touch-points. To write an explicitly “political” song is of course not simply to write a good song – and nuance is an admirable trait. However, I can’t help but think how much more zest these tracks would have were they more direct in their lyrical intent. The brilliantly bluesy inflections and bold country rock choruses are timeless – but were Nash’s stories less obscure, he may forge a whole new genre altogether.

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“Topaz” is released on Loose Music on 12 March

[See also: Kate Mossman on the fight over Britney Spears]

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