Tim Bluhm’s fifth solo record, his first in ten years, Sorta Surviving, is the country record he’s always wanted to put out there. Most of his musical life has found Bluhm steeped in old country songs, particularly those that came out of the oil fields of Bakersfield, California back in the 1950’s and 60’s. He’s worked those songs into his band, The Mother Hips, sets and he was instrumental in forming the country band of ace Bay Area players, Brokedown In Bakersfield, that revived many of the old songs and brought them to a hungry audience that hung on every note every night. But this latest record is his true homage to those great tunes and his self-penned songs are worthy of taking a prominent place among the greats of the genre.
The album was recorded at the Cash Cabin in rural Hendersonville, Tennessee and there is no doubt that the thick aural history of the place that is sure to hang in the air and stick to the studio walls worked its way into the tapes and found its rightful place in the grooves of the final product. And for this project, Bluhm enlisted the help of some fantastic music makers. Under the watchful eye of producer Dave Schools (Widespread Panic), Bluhm laid down tracks with monumental Nashville session musicians Dave Roe on bass (Dave played bass with Johnny Cash himself), and Gene Chrisman on drums (do yourself a favor and just do a cursory search on Chrisman and familiarize yourself with all the songs you know on which this guy has played). Jesse Aycock (Hard Working Americans) on guitar and Jason Crosby on piano rounded out the players.
The songs are largely Bluhm’s own with a faithful but rocking cover of The Everly Brothers’ “Del Rio Dan” thrown in for good measure (and thank God because it smokes). There is also a soulful rendering of Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” and Merle Haggard’s heartbreaking “Kern River”. Considering the time period that many of Bluhm’s originals were penned (largely while he was recovering from a potentially life-ending accident), they are not so much about suffering, self-loathing or situational self-pity. More, they are a message to the rest of us that struggle through life, to appreciate the good moments when they come around, take stock and remember those that touch our lives and make them better.
Bluhm’s treatment of one of his old songs, “Raining Gravel” shines a light on his talent for writing songs of a historical narrative nature that bring us lessons from history. As California burns a little more every year, Tim takes us back to the dusters of the Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas and families fleeing the Dustbowl for the promise of a more pastoral and easy life in California that was, for many, not readily realized. It makes one wonder if a kind of dustbowl-in- reverse may one day come?
And there are humorous songs too. “Where I Parked My Mind” is a comical take of love for day beers and the trouble that comes when you just can’t refuse the next one. This song will one day (maybe tomorrow – hopefully) play on some digital jukebox in some dusty old bar to be properly understood. He also revives his popular “Squeaky Wheel” with a Bluegrass bent that builds on older versions and brings it to us with a fresh coat fiddle, banjo and slide guitar. There is a hook in “No Way to Steer” that pulls us into the song about every man’s winding journey through life and of rounding the corners and learning from the lessons of mistaken moves. Aycock’s pedal steel is so lonesome and perfect in this one. It’s another one that you could hear after an old Hank song and swear it was from the same time period.
In all, this must have been really important for Tim to put together and it sounds that way from the first listen. Here is hoping that we won’t have to wait another ten years before his next solo work finds its way to our speakers. Tim Bluhm is arguably of the finest singer/songwriters to emerge from California for decades and we would all do better to hear more from him.