great big sky – Daryl Wayne Dasher (April 23, 2013 – Hike the Stone Music)
(by UCN contributor Deb Bose)
These days, pop culture references to “Country & Western” evoke a quaint and bygone era in which songs about the cowboy’s life out in the open range were a defining part of the country music genre. Marketing tropes and the urbanization of country’s fanbase have given way to an increasingly cartoonish truck-and-beer-centric treatment of rural life by mainstream country songs, and today’s dominant country archetype is a backwards baseball cap-wearing frat boy as opposed to a world-weary ranger who bears the responsibility of land and family. Those who find the latter more interesting than the former can still turn to the likes of Dwight Yoakam, Riders In The Sky, and Corb Lund, and with the release of his excellent new album great big sky, they can and should also turn to Daryl Wayne Dasher.
great big sky opens, appropriately enough, with ‘Hello Sky,’ a pensive midtempo song in which Dasher muses about his character failings and plans to ride away from the people he cares about until he can learn to treat them properly. That sets the tone for the rest of the album, much of which addresses the mindset of a man with a lot of life under his belt facing his limitations and flaws, all of it delivered in Dasher’s emotive and appealing baritone. Although Great Big Sky is steeped in the minimalistic mix of traditional country and folk that makes for the Western sound, its stories and point of view feel contemporary and relevant. Only ‘Mountains of Montana’ covers the traditional “Western” ground by depicting a character who longs for his home after having traveled all around, and it does so with a peppy melody and a vocal delivery that draws inspiration in equal parts from Dwight Yoakam and Roy Orbison. ‘Again’ movingly depicts a female singer/mother/wife whose musical expressions of her lack of fulfillment fall on deaf ears (particularly, those of her husband). If not for the lack of references to “booze and pills,” the characters here would bear striking similarity to the ones Kacey Musgraves sings about in her deservedly-acclaimed hit ‘Merry Go Round’: married young, parents while still young, but growing up to become bored and discontent. Dasher sings with sympathy and understanding where Musgraves with detachment, so we feel the wistfulness and longing of his character.
Similarly mature and world-weary is album highlight ‘Soldier,’ the incredibly touching contemplation of a man who has served his country on multiple tours of duty that have taken him away from the family and land that he cherishes. He is haunted by the prospect of being called away again (or as Dasher puts it, he is “tied to his bed by a net of black ink/one string for each thought [he]’d rather not think”), and later haunted by the prospect of never seeing his family again. Whether at home or in the trenches, our soldier cannot escape the weight of uncertainty, and it’s a weight that you can feel in Dasher’s delivery. The ache he feels in his soul leads to an honest, heart-rending admission, “I know it’s not something a soldier’s supposed to say. But I’m tired and I’ve had enough war.” It’s a sentiment that feels as fitting today as it may have 50 and 100 years ago.
The timeliness of great big sky is especially striking on its closing track, ‘Leave the Rest Alone.’ The song takes on the polarization and uncertainties of our times, providing reassurance that through love and unity, we will be able to maintain a handle on it all. As trite as that may sound, the sad reality is that tragedy and uncertainty can breed mistrust which can get in the way of moving forward. Dasher provides a gentle reminder not to give into counter-productive impulses, and there is comfort in hearing that reminder from an old soul who sounds like he has seen more than his fair share of tough times. These verses feel especially relevant, comforting and needed after last week’s terrorist attack on spectators at the Boston Marathon:
It gets hard to see the good through all the evil
In the years when times are tough and war is nigh
When it feels wrong to shake the hand of a stranger
Then fear has won the devil’s delight
So that’s why you’ll find me smiling at you, stranger.
‘Cause together we’re much stronger than apart
And if we’re all each little parts
Of a much larger picture
Then we could pull ourselves together
To heal the wounded hearts.
Elsewhere on the album, Dasher examines romance on the folky ‘What Does It Mean?’ This track features his most playful lyrics, as on the second verse: “Emotions, potions, oceans filled with creatures big & small, laughin’, cryin’, dyin’, tryin’ hard to get along. And clustered, flustered folks falter righting the same fence, binding it together a single word that makes no sense.” The track makes for a nice, whimsical interlude on what being in love does to our psyche. Meanwhile, Dasher treats love with reverence and realism on ‘Follow Me.’ Penned by Roger Allen Wade and Tom Grant, ‘Follow Me’ is the only song on great big sky that Dasher didn’t write or co-write. In the song, Dasher asks the love of his life for lifelong commitment and remembrance after his passing, but with honesty that the journey together may be difficult and uncertain. There is wisdom and sincerity in Dasher’s voice as he conveys the challenges and wonder of the leap of faith that is love in one of the album’s best lines, “Truth, it’s a journey for one in ten thousand, and true love is even harder to find.”
‘Ride Along’ picks up on the journey of the man we met in ‘Hello Sky,’ the man who, unable and unwilling to face his responsibilities at home, seeks solace in a long ride with nature and the “great big sky” as his only companions, and “where the only thing that can follow you are the tears in your eyes.” Dasher is impressively unafraid to play with the “strong, silent” cowboy archetype by presenting his characters as weighed down by conscience and their inadequacy to rise to their responsibilities. That is also Dasher’s approach when he finally has his lone ranger ride back home to face the end of his marriage, to tell his partner that he simply cannot be the husband she wants on the raw and tired ‘I’ve Tried (I’m Dry).’ It’s a mournful traditional country ballad that feels even more realistic because of the touch of bitterness in Dasher’s lyrics. Our noble cowboy feels a little grittier and a little more attainable because he can’t help but hint that he was faced with unattainable expectations at home. After that catharsis, Dasher’s cowboy is ready to mix and mingle on the upbeat ‘Take You Home,’ as he invites a new interest home with him to indulge in their mutual physical attraction, no matter what judgmental onlookers may have to say about it. The quirky ‘Sun’ has a Jimmy Buffett-like beachy feel – an odd development, but one that fits with the metaphor Dasher cleverly uses to sum up his cowboy’s struggles with the weight of his responsibilities. Like the sun, “No, no I ain’t ever goin’ away, I’ll just choose when or not to come out.”
With his mix of traditional country and folk storytelling, sweet melodies, expressive and rich vocals, and smart, poignant, and sometimes piercing lyrics, Daryl Wayne Dasher makes a strong case for the continued relevance of Western music in the mainstream landscape. great big sky isn’t just music for “old farts” hung up on glory days gone by, it is a reminder that American history is full of complex characters whose struggles still shed welcome light on the uncertainties we face in the modern day, wherever we live.