- Press photo via official website
When John Henry began performing and recording nearly a decade ago, he called his backing band the Engine in a nod to a locomotive's driving power and working-class ethic. It was a fitting moniker for a band that played clear-eyed roots rock with a faded Rust Belt chic. But for his latest full-length, Dark City Dark Country, Henry is releasing an album under his own name, though he recorded much of it with a core backing band.
"I was craving the flexibility of a solo artist but I still wanted to have a rock & roll band," he says. "I didn't want to put pressure on people in my band to be full-time members."
To further signal a change in direction, Henry worked closely with David Beeman at his Native Sound studio. That partnership has broadened his sonic palette: For an artist who has been steeped in dark-tinted and twangy Americana for the bulk of his career, Henry embraces some more impressionistic tones, often compliments of Native Sound's vast gear locker. An undulating synth pad lends a pulsating, resonant undercurrent to the title track, which eventually gets filled in with metallic guitar slashes and whirring organ chords. It's a stirring performance, and it owes as much to the band's sustained build-up as to the recording environment.
But while Beeman's Cherokee Street perch proved fertile ground for Henry and company to stretch out, the album's most radio-friendly track comes care of Nashville super-producer Dave Cobb. Henry's relationship with Cobb dates back to 2011, when the singer decamped to Music City to audition for the Americana quintet the Wild Feathers. While Henry didn't end up joining the band, his connection with Cobb — who was on his way to renown for his work with Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton — led to a collaboration on the track "Broken City," which sees its release on record five years later.
"When you work with him, he's a super nice guy," Henry says of Cobb. "He serves the song in a certain way and lets it do what it's gonna do." On the track, an opening chorus of "whoa-ay-oh" and a thundering rhythm section calls to mind some of the communal appeal of singles by the Lumineers and Edward Sharpe. Those earmarks date the song a little, though it does meet Henry's stated goal of being "snappy and catchy," as he says. It also sheds a little light on an album often imbued with the darkness telegraphed by its title.
Another older song, "Lightning City Blues," comes right behind "Broken City," though it subverts the pop pleasures of that track for a spartan steeliness. The track was originally included on Under the Yellow Moon, the first album by John Henry & the Engine, in 2008. At the time, Henry says, it was a late addition to the album's line-up, and subsequent live renditions turned the track into something more sinister. "I wanted to present a more adult version of that song," Henry says.
In the past few years, Henry has been as busy booking shows and festivals as he has been performing at them. Five years ago he founded at the Open Highway Music Festival, and along with Off Broadway's Steve Pohlman, Henry has continued to widen the net and expand the coverage of the multi-night event. This year's featured the requisite country and folk acts alongside outsider pop, indie rock and stand-up comedy.
"I love the music business — I love the artistic side and the business side," he says. "I feel comfortable stepping in between those areas. Open Highway is certainly my baby — it's something I care very much about and want to continue to grow."
He'll have his chance to focus solely on that artistic side at this weekend's LouFest, where Henry and his band will be one of several local acts playing in Forest Park. As a promoter himself, Henry has a sensitivity to the machinations of booking and running a festival, albeit on a much smaller scale. "I have admired the way LouFest has gone about their organization and planning over the years. We're putting a lot of thought and hard work into the preparations for it."
When we spoke last week, Henry was putting the final touches on the album's mix and was planning a rush-order at the manufacturing plant to make sure copies of Dark City Dark Country would be available for this weekend.
When asked if he'd focus his LouFest set on new, as-yet-unreleased material, Henry displays his usual brand of showmanship.
"For something like this, where I'm in a position where I'm trying to impact as many people as I can at that show, I just want to play the best material — no matter where it's from — and give people a 45-minute snapshot of what this band is about."