Andrew Adkins: Who I Am
Andrew Adkins is here to tell you a story. His career as a singer-songwriter has revolved around songs that are sketches from real life, lyrics based on his experiences and the people he’s known over the years. This truthfulness shines in his songs; they are unpretentious and genuine. Even when the story is made up, it’s still just as real.
For longtime fans, Adkins’s new album, Who I Am*, may seem a departure at first. The Fayetteville, West Virginia, resident first showed up on many people’s radar as the frontman for the Wild Rumpus, a band well-known for its uproarious live shows and tendency to skirt the edges separating bluegrass and punk rock. When that band went on a long-term hiatus, Adkins began exploring a broader emotional pallet in his songwriting. The solo albums that followed maintained the basic minimalist aesthetic that came out of the Wild Rumpus, while also allowing for songs that were more subtle than the Rumpus’ raucous party atmosphere.
With Who I Am, Adkins tries something new: working with studio musicians in a full-fledged modern studio. He enlists iconic West Virginia musician Ron Sowell (Mountain Stage Band) as producer and ace recording engineer and multi-instrumentalist Bud Carroll (member of bands American Minor and AC30, as well as producer of multiple West Virginia artists, including Hello June and Ona). On their own, there is precious little Sowell and Carroll cannot manage; on Who I Am, they provide a veritable who’s who of Mountain State music to flesh out Adkins’s songs. The album’s tracks are further supported by legendary Mountain Stage drummer Ammed Solomon and mandolin luminary Johnny Staats, with perfect touches by Chris Stockwell’s Dobro, Randy Gilkey’s keys, and the supporting vocals of the formidable Annie Neeley and The Sea The Sea. The album also features longtime Adkins bassist and co-conspirator, Clint Lewis.
For people who like Americana singer-songwriters, the comparisons to some of the greats come quickly and easily. Adkins infuses the straightforward profundity of Guy Clark with an unmistakably Appalachian charm. On the other hand, if you couldn’t tell Woody Guthrie from Steve Earle, you’d still be won over by Adkins’s honest, lived-in warmth and good humor.
Who I Am’s title track is one of the best songs from a career of which any songwriter would be proud. Though the song is presented as a first-person narrative, fans who have seen Adkins perform it live know that he’s relating someone else’s life story (one shared with him by a man who once hitched a ride back to West Virginia with Adkins). The biograph is presented as a simple summary of the main points of a man’s life. The genius in these lyrics is that Adkins leaves it up to the listener’s imagination to complete the details, thus pulling the audience into the song. When Adkins sings, “She loved me, Till I did what I did,” his audience is likely to fill in the unspecified sin with one of their own. The listener becomes the unnamed man and feels the weight of the chains being worn, which the man freely admits to forging.
In contrast, “Southbound” is a song Adkins wrote about returning home himself. Musicians usually write songs about home for one of two reasons: to get friendly local audiences to whoop and shout or because they are really moved by a profound sense of belonging. “Southbound” is unquestionably the latter. The protagonist of the song is someone who believes he has left home for good, never to return. Then, “Lessons learned in harder times, Tore apart [his] tangled mind....” He finds himself longing for home and wishing he’d never left. Adkins’s beloved home of West Virginia is a place that many flee only to return years later. This is certainly a song for those people.
“Echoes” is a standout track and a crowd favorite at Adkins’s live shows. Here, he employs the trope of a murder ballad; however, he both acknowledges and subverts the listener’s expectations by starting out with “There she stands on the banks of the Ohio, We all know what happens there.” By the end of the song, the woman has refused the protagonist’s advances and rebuffed his assault with fatal consequences. The listener just expects a song about a woman getting killed from an Americana artist like Andrew Adkins. He knows this and uses it to draw his audience in before flipping the script.
The track “Worries Behind” is a not only a very sweet bit of Appalachian gospel, but also a gorgeous showcase for sideman Staats. One of the handful of people in any conversation about the world’s finest mandolin players, Staats here is all finesse, playing a perfectly restrained accompaniment and delivering only what the song needs.
Who I Am is exceptional for its emotional range. Adkins refuses to strike the same tired notes over and over. The record goes from fun, danceable tracks (“Henry Ford Blues”) to a wistful reflection on a young man’s first automobile (“Burning the Tires Off”). As much as those two songs differ, both manage to slip Adkins’s plain-spoken songwriting wisdom and wit at the listener when least expected. Indeed, the whole album works best for those who are paying attention to the song’s content; Adkins has a story to tell you, and when you pay attention, you often realize the song is about you.
Check out Who I Am, and certainly make time to see Andrew Adkins live**. He is one of Appalachia’s best.
*Who I Am is currently available locally, only. National release date set for 2019. In the meantime, check out their title track from the album, below.
**Andrew Adkins was recently added to the January 27th Mountain Stage lineup. Be sure to see him, and be prepared to be blown away.