For the past few years, John Goolsby’s performances at places like Knuckleheads' Gospel Lounge have generally been solo — a singer-songwriter with country leanings, carrying shows with his pure-but-burly voice, a guitar, and a growing stack of songs with heartfelt, honest stories behind them.
Country, though, isn’t the whole story. When choosing covers, the St. Joseph native is as likely to go Stax or Motown as Nashville, and for last year he even broke out an inspiring, evening-long tribute to Sam Cooke, a humble, reverent and well-researched trip through Cooke’s career. (Not everyone can pull off “A Change Is Gonna Come”; Goolsby can.)
Goolsby’s field-tested originals have returned home as The Midwest, a fully-realized country rock album.
Even made large, Goolsby’s songs are intimate. The opening manifesto, “Time To Make A Move,” with its declaration “Hey, John, boy, it’s time to live your life” could refer to the story of taking his songs to Nashville, where this record was lushly produced by Andy Davis — who avoided the pitfalls of merely adding layers to songs that already work just fine, and revealed the advantages of letting those songs run a little wild.
“Grandaddy Still Gets Down,” the most roadhouse-ready song here, is a slinky tribute to a widower grandfather who hasn’t slowed down at all: “Spinning and twirling with every girl here half his age.” (Goolsby captures the man’s own voice briefly with the surprisingly seductive “Anybody want a Werther’s Original?”) The song is funny (everyone does, after all, know that man), but never makes fun of him; Grandaddy is a bona fide gentleman, someone to be admired.
Even though the record was produced in Nashville with a sound twelve acres deep, Goolsby’s songs have plenty of reality and soul in the arrangements. “Lonely Together” could easily be a song from John Hiatt, Delbert McClinton or Marc Broussard, and as Goolsby sings “I don’t care about forever/I just want someone who wants to be lonely together,” with Davis’s lush electric piano behind him, the sentiment sounds infinitely better than the bare words. Goolsby’s tribute to a lost love, “KayCee” (The town? The girl?) still echoes, even when Goolsby sings about other loved places in his truly grateful “Texas Found Me” or the Carolina tribute in “Speaking of Charlotte.”
“Good and Slow,” the one song that holds on to the quietness of Goolsby’s solo shows, slips in as an unabashed love song, the right answer to anyone who’s come home beaten up (or down) by life. “Let me hang up that coat/We ain’t goin’ nowhere this evening/Turn the lights down low/May I have this dance?” carry miles of hope and a gentle smile as he lingers on each word, capturing the quiet act of simply paying attention with remarkably few brushstrokes.
Goolsby’s journey to — or back to — The Midwest has probably been a rocky one, but his songs have made it through all grown up.
KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.