- Photo by Blackburn Photography
If the songs on Kip Loui's first solo album, The Hill Recordings, sound like textbook approaches to country and Western songwriting, that's because he has an encyclopedic grasp on the form. His tutelage goes back a few decades, from when he played with the more pop-centric Heebie Jeebies in the early '90s through a fervent interest in roots music such as Belle Star, the Rockhouse Ramblers, the Transmitters and the High Dives. More recently, Loui has joined forces with Bottle Rockets frontman Brian Henneman in Diesel Island, wherein the singers trade off on classic country covers.
It's tempting to hear these dozen songs as an accumulation of more than 25 years in and out of bands — or as an amalgamation of the varying strains of American music Loui has performed in that time. But in just a few listens, it's clear that Loui is writing comfortably from his station in life, not from some imagined or romanticized past. These songs focus on middle age, child-rearing and the simple pleasures of a settled but still artistically restless existence.
"This is definitely the most personal thing I've ever allowed myself to do," says Loui. "Normally I don't allow myself to enjoy confessional song lyrics or stuff that gets too personal or too navel-gazing. I find that tedious. But this is the first record where I decided to let my life come through a little more."
At 52, Loui's life could be the model of suburban domesticity: a wife (JJ, who sings and plays harmonica on the album), a three-year old son (Max, who is name-checked in one song and who appears as inspiration for several more), a job as a Special School District teacher and a mid-century house in Crestwood. And there's more than a bit of flyover-country pride in a song like "Middle of Nowhere," which posits that cheap rent, a loving family and a little space to think is plenty to be grateful for.
"I became a dad at the tender age of 49," says Loui. "It was life-changing in many ways. It's the most awesomely difficult thing I've ever done."
Max's impending arrival was the spur that struck Loui's side and compelled him to gather his best songs and his favorite musicians in David Toretta's Hill neighborhood home.
"This is basically a collection of demos I recorded before Max was born," he says. "My wife was six months pregnant. Max was gonna be coming along in three months and I'm freaking out about money. How can I make extra money? Money's gonna be tight! We have a house in a fairly affluent neighborhood?! What can I do well?"
"One thing that I've always kicked myself for not doing was getting more serious about publishing," Loui continues. "So I thought I would take a collection of really strong songs, and these will be my songwriting demos to pitch to Nashville...which is hilarious, because if you listen to any of these songs, none of these are Nashville songs. But in my delirious state of mind, I thought that these were commercial."
When Loui talks about "New Nashville" (or its more derogatory term, "bro country"), he's comparing it against six or seven decades of country music. And it didn't take long for him to see that these songs that both celebrate and push against domesticity are the opposite of modern country corn-pone. On the album, Loui sings in an unaffected tenor voice, with an audible wink in his eye more often than not. He's also drawing on tradition more often than the shock of the new; "For Sale By Owner," for instance, fuses two country tropes — a broken heart and a busted car — but what could easily slip into cliché is redeemed by a smart, soulful bridge and the sympathetic playing of his backing band.
Several of Loui's Diesel Island bandmates join him on The Hill Recordings, his first solo outing. Richard Tralles (upright bass) and Spencer Marquart (drums) provide a simple, supple rhythm section, and the versatile lead guitar comes from Mark Spencer, whose work with Jay Farrar and Laura Cantrell speaks to his prowess. Spencer moves from slight psychedelia on the lightly phased runs on "Getting On" to the driving leads on opening track "Equal Measures."
Loui seems to have found a workable middle ground between music and family, a balance made a little sweeter by the appearance of his wife on several tracks. The lone cover on the album, Bill Monroe's "Sitting Alone in the Moonlight," fits right in the mold of Loui's originals. But the choice of that particular chestnut — of the hundreds that Loui has in his fakebook — has a fittingly sentimental attachment.
"I met her at an open mic and we just started singing together," he says of JJ. "It was one of the first songs we learned together."
Stream "Little Max" from the album below: