This is really one of the most exciting things that’s ever happened to me. I wrote liner notes!
Jeffrey Halford’s new release, West Towards South, is such a beautiful album, and to be accorded the honor of penning liner notes for the vinyl edition is something I will remain proud of—and humbled by—for the rest of my life.
Liner notes have really been a kind of school for me; I think I’ve learned more about music from the backs of albums than just about any other source I can think of, and with this album, I did my very best to live up to my heroes: Samuel Charters, Chris Strachwitz, Dick Waterman, and oh, so many more …
I can’t encourage you enough to listen to this record, and if you’re able, please get the vinyl. Not because of my liner notes (though I’ll of course be thrilled if you read them!), but because these are the kinds of songs that should be savored the way we used to savor our LPs; we listened to them over and over again, song by song, in order, as we read, and pondered, and felt, and were moved.
Congratulations to you, Jeffrey Halford, on a remarkable musical achievement, and thank you for inviting me to play a small role in the story of Ambrose and Cyrus …
Jeffrey Halford – West Towards South
liner notes by Christopher “Preacher Boy” Watkins
Mostly, there is the story.
West Towards South recalls the work of Sam Shepard or William Goldman who do similarly expert jobs of transporting us to other tragic worlds with fierce degrees of rustic authenticity. But this is music, and there is of course precedent for what Halford has done here—after all, it’s not the first time we’ve heard rebel tales in roots leathers rendered with dirty slide guitars and trash can drums. But Halford has something that sets him apart; something at his disposal reserved only for the true masters of the form—a life deeply lived, and a craft finely honed.
Where Halford hits his most killer musical stride is on songs like “Three-Quarter Moon,” with its laudanum-laced shamble ambling along like an opioid “West towards South”; or on “A Town Called Slow,” with its percolating minor-chord syncopations swinging out a warning: “This is how this deal goes down.” In both cases, the lurching grooves and atmospheric spackling act as sonic enactments the broken narratives they share.
As he sings on the beautiful folk ballad “The Sea of Cortez”:
I got a notion I can’t explain
I never been here, but I feel like I’m home again
One of the great pleasures of gifting yourself the experience of repeated deep listening to an album such as this one is the opportunity to discover little kernels of magic not necessarily consciously registered the first time around; little repeating tropes, little bits of flavor and color that recur in blurring whirls that last only long enough to provide a sense of fragile continuity. One such reappearing motif is the notion that something won’t end well. I’ll offer no spoilers as to how the story actually ends for the brothers—you’ll need to listen to the record for yourself to find out—but picture the scene: Ambrose with a noose around his neck, spitting invective at his judges:
Any last words Ambrose?
Well, you can all go to hell
But I just want to tell you
That this might not end well
Three bell chimes later, the hangman is dead, the preacher is face down on the ground, and the music goes careening off into a sadistic spaghetti western march. I got chills the first time I listened to “Gallows.” You will as well
Jeffrey Halford’s reputation as a songwriter is hard-earned and well-deserved, and his rough-hewn voice and urgent slide guitar are hallmarks of his soulful sound. But with West Towards South, Halford can now confidently add “storyteller” to his byline, for he’s created something so many strive for, and yet too few achieve—a genuine Americana concept album that is simultaneously devoid of pretension, and richly authentic. If Cormac McCarthy played guitar, he’d have a regular slot at The Sad Cafe, and folks would come from miles around to hear him sing “The Ballad of Ambrose and Cyrus.”
—Christopher “Preacher Boy” Watkins