Imagine diving after a pearl of great price, only to find that it rests within a double-tough shell you must crack open with two opposing attempts: one about strength, the other surrender.
That’s how it went down for Waco, Texas native Brian Wright as he labored to land his gem, the new album Rattle Their Chains. That’s not to say he started on the wrong foot: far from it. He convened last summer in a Los Angeles studio, surrounded by a trusted core of country sharpshooters. And he brandished 18 songs, demoed and arranged meticulously so the musicians could follow his lead. Those who heard the resulting recordings hailed them as lean, tough and dynamic. They were also sure to enhance Wright’s reputation as an amazing live performer who doesn’t so much sing his songs as he leans into them, rides them bareback … telegraphs them with the intensity of a Steve Earle and the go-get-’em spirit of locomotive driver feeding one more coal scoop to his steam engine.
But when Wright reviewed the rough mixes, he had his own thoughts, and they weren’t positive.
“I didn’t like the songs once I heard them, so I scrapped all but three or four,” he says. “It was clever but it didn’t say anything. It had hooks and melodies but it was empty. It was too precise. It didn’t feel or sound right at all. Maybe I’ll look back a year or two from now and think differently about it, and do something with it. But it sounded like me trying to be the Rolling Stones, when I don’t sing like Mick Jagger or talk like Mick Jagger. I was reaching for something that wasn’t honest.”
So for dive two, Wright retreated – literally. He headed north to the Pacific Coast enclave of Lincoln City, Oregon to hole up in a friend’s hotel just a few weeks shy of Christmas. Once there, Wright followed the same ritual for a week: breakfasts fueled by copious coffee and eggs sunny-side up; long beach walks listening to Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes and The Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillies; hunkering down with his Gibson J-45 acoustic, letting lyrics and melodies surface as if culled from the ocean deep.
Then there was the vision: “I was picturing this band playing these songs – my friends – and I could hear what was going to happen: a band in a room, guys who really love each other and are really tight.” The premonition was fitting, given that Wright’s music translates so well to a live stage. To hear him describe it, a peak live experience finds Brian and the band unfurling a monster feedback loop of energy and good feeling, multiplied by audience energy. When it works well, you’ll find Wright strumming away without a care, eyes squeezed shut, smiling his way up the summit.
Back in an L.A. studio for take two – with a dozen new songs to learn on the spot without any prep – Wright and his buddies nailed it. He sought that spontaneity of a live show, a roots-rock hoot to smolder and sting, and he got it. But the resulting album also reflects something more: a shadow-grapples-light intensity where regret and hope square off like already-bruised boxers staggering through another tough round.
Take “Weird Winter,” a mournful minor-key masterwork that blends images of transition, desperation and graveside grief in best Guy Clark fashion – rich and evocative, yet leaving enough space for the listener to fill in the blanks with their own backstory and reverie. The lyric also proved an artistic premonition of sorts, as Wright would experience the loss of his father not long after it was written. (In roughly the same time period, he lost his father-in-law and brother as well.)
Yet Wright also experienced luminous changes through the sessions for Rattle Their Chains. He moved his family from Los Angeles to Nashville, the decision made even as the record took shape. “It definitely informed the music,” he says. “I was thinking a lot about where I was from; I was thinking about Los Angeles. I came through there as a naive kid and I learned a lot about being an artist. I lost love, and I found love, and then I started a family – and I also made a lot mistakes.”
So yes, the songs on Rattle Their Chains are personal, but they also invite the listener to settle into them with all the pull of a beloved, broken-in couch. “I try to write a little less about me and a little more open to interpretation, so people can relate,” Wright says.
Besides Dylan and the Band, Wright also found himself drawn to “the storytelling of Texas songwriters. I find myself really into Townes Van Zandt; he had so many beautiful songs. Woody Guthrie, Willie Nelson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Guy Clark and Kris Kristofferson all lived there; there’s something in the water in Texas that yields a poetic, left of center style of writing that seems unique to so many artists from there. It’s where all these great stories come from. But I’m also influenced by great rock and roll: The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Kinks and other bands like that.”
Wright’s songwriting savvy shines on the ragged country waltz “Haunted,” which contains the lyric that gives the album its title. Its intoxicating mix of slide guitar and honky-tonk rhythm summons up a vision of Gram Parsons’ ghost, riding shotgun with Keith Richards: “A ghost is an angel, an angel with nowhere to fly. And I’ll be a stranger until the day that I die.” Then there’s “Rosalee,” which starts with just Wright and his acoustic guitar evoking a plaintive simplicity to do Johnny Cash proud. The drums kick in and the tune blossoms into a swirl of images conjured for the narrator’s beloved: “Your favorite position, the hit man’s conviction, the hitcher’s best whistling tune, your favorite sweater, the break in the weather you hoped would be getting here soon.”
Speaking of favorites, the song is one of Wright’s most beloved on the new album. “It’s the best example in my mind of the trip up to Oregon, leaving my family at home so I could go to Oregon and be an artist for a week. It’s a love song and I laid myself bare for that.”
That Wright has arrived at this point in his artistic journey surprises even the artist himself. After spending his early twenties on the Austin/Waco/Dallas bar circuit, playing everything from punk to covers, Wright moved to Los Angeles over New York on a coin toss. He built his reputation over a series of fine albums, including Bluebird and Dog Ears, both recorded with a live band in the studio in feverish three-day spans. Then came 2011’s House on Fire, where Wright holed up in a home studio, accompanied by only a producer and some personal demons to excise. On that disc, “I played most of the instruments; I just wanted to hole up and make a record by myself.”
But this new record, he says, was just the opposite. “I was in a really good place, going out and playing bar gigs with my friends, and that’s what I wanted this record to sound like. And when we come together, it’s a sound like no other.”
That sound now rests in your hands; let it work its way into your heart. Albums pursued with so much abandon and persistence do not come around all that often. Wright’s deep diving in and of itself is a rare and beautiful thing. That it yielded a treasure so brilliant and hard makes it all the more remarkable.