Lyal Strickland’s day job, raising grass-fed beef cattle on 900 acres or so just north of Springfield in Buffalo, Missouri, says as much about his authenticity as his rocky, heart-wrenching songs.
The struggle to make any kind of living off a small farm is a sub-text throughout Preservation, Strickland’s seventh CD, even in the songs that don’t specifically mention farming. Preservation is a mantra for surviving — not a demand for making it big, or even thriving, but for just holding things together without it all getting worse.
Whether he’s singing about shovels hitting rocks or relationships threatening to do the same, Strickland’s songs never flinch from the truth.
The album’s first kick in the chest is “The Hotel Maid,” opening with the line, “A quarter million dollars doesn’t buy that much/I’m going to need a hundred more to keep my daddy’s place up.” (Those staggering numbers are real, especially when “three years of taxes have gone unpaid.”) The song is about the merciless tension and side-effects of that debt, and it’s easy to feel the futility of trying to pay it off when Strickland sings “My girl pulls her weight as a hotel maid.”
Strickland is at his best telling stories of people surviving, just barely. “Clyde and His Clippers” is the story of a small-town barber whose shop withers after the “big box” came in, and the Woody Guthrie-via-Steve Earle anthem “Minimum Wage” makes Strickland’s politics clear: “It’s just table scraps falling off a rich man’s plate.”
“Her Way Back Home,” a heartbreaker in the realm of John Prine’s “Hello In There” or Sam Baker’s “Waves,” is a tale of his grandmother’s passing, and it’s a small miracle that Strickland (or anyone) can sing it live. It’s a story of her time in a nursing home and her wandering away searching for her husband/ex-husband (“Fifty years of marriage/ten of divorce”) as she “walked her way back home.” The way Strickland captures her words -- “Where’d he go/Where’s that man?/The one with the smilin’ eyes/The one that held my hand?” — provides the perfect portrait of grief pouring in from all directions at once.
The sweetest song, “Pretty Good Core,” demonstrates how far from mainstream country Strickland winds up. After acknowledging in the song that the narrator isn’t easy to live with and has done a pretty poor job following up on any changes he’s promised, he offers an almost-gone lover the best he’s got: a pretty good core. It’s all he has, and by the end of the song, she just might, maybe, agree it’ll suffice.
Not many Americana songwriters actually work a career field where each day brings risk of an injury that, at the least, keeps them off a guitar for a few days. But beyond the fact that he walks the walk, Strickland’s spare tale-telling means we know exactly how that feels.
KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.