Wesley Randolph Eader // Highway Winds

 

7.5

self-released / 2016

Highway Winds is Wesley Randolph Eader's second album, but the cover art for his first LP, 2012's Of Old It Was Recorded, is still the most descriptive metaphor for what he's about. It's a washed-out, far-away photograph of Eader with guitar in hand, mounted in an antique wooden frame that you'd guess was from half a century ago. Like that picture, newcomers to Eader's music would probably assume it's decades and decades old. That's because he plays his version of old-fashioned folk and gospel completely straight, with not a wink or a trace of irony to be found - he's like a time-traveling third Louvin Brother who's taken up life as a 29-year-old Portlander.

Eader's economic but powerful way with words gave Of Old It Was Recorded's stark, very traditional gospel hymns a sublime gravity, and Highway Winds' more personal folk songs benefit from the same, still delivered in a charmingly nasal, old-timey twang. Eader draws from other branches of Americana on this record, too, adding bluegrass and country inflections with the help of (among others) Blitzen Trapper frontman Eric Earley, whose multi-instrumentalist chops embellish nearly every track.

Like the name suggests, Highway Winds is about and meant for the road. Trucks, buses, and highways show up on nearly every song, and Eader's characters - missionaries, ex-cons, astronauts - are always leaving or in transit. Indeed, the bluegrass thumper "Carry On Down the Road" (which features champion fiddler Luke Price, tearing it up), is an explicit ode to the curative powers of peacing out: "If you're broken and you wanna get fixed/Just remember these words then go like this: I've got to go, I've got to go/I've got to carry on down that road".

"Talkin' Walmart Texas Blues" is the record's most instantly memorable song, calling back especially to Dylan's "Talkin' World War III Blues". But instead of wandering a newly-irradiated New York, Eader's version has him trapped at a nightmarishly huge, town-devouring iteration of the house that Sam Walton built. Hilariously, it's so big that it has "its own post office, its own city hall, its own go-kart racing track, its own nuclear missile silo, even its own K-Mart." Yet even in this trenchant and comic vision of capitalism run amok, Eader retains a humble self-criticism. At song's end, he exclaims with relief, "I've been to Walmart for the very last time", before wryly nodding to the maybe-even-more-dubious (yet socially kosher) new way of doing things: "Now I do all my shopping online/Who's running that operation, anyway?"

Like the best folk singers of the past, Eader doesn't just excoriate the powerful for their sins, but elevates the morally heroic everyman: on the gorgeous ballad "Eliza (The Saint of Flower Mountain)", he spins the story of a young woman laying her life down for villagers in an unnamed war-torn country. Similarly, "Country Preacher" is a refreshing and straightforward acclamation of a parochial minister - so straightforward, in fact, it's disorienting. Describing the preacher's life, Eader rattles off so fundamentalist cliches - pickup truck, revival tent, altar calls - you start to brace for the inevitable suckerpunch to shatter the rosy caricature. But the suckerpunch never comes, and the song remains precisely what it seemed on the surface: a happy celebration of a nobody preacher who "follows Jesus most humbly."

For every one of those moral heroes on Highway Winds, though, there are two more broken-hearted lovers or disaffected vagabonds - Eader has especial sympathy for the down-and-out, and a Townes Van Zandtian knack for the poetry of the hard-scrabble. Driven by a deeper spiritual hunger, his rootless wanderers are ambivalent about the possibility of material satisfaction - as the melancholy riverboat sailor on "Big Steam Wheel" puts it, "I guess I should be proud that I live in such an age/Where mankind rules the world and does everything his way". But Eader's songs are encouragements that the rambling path is suffused with grace - that no matter where you go, you go with God. Or, as he sings, accompanied by the sigh of a harmonica as the album closes, "Oh, the highway winds blow easy on the road that carries you."