Live Oak

Jeremy Nail

Open Nine Music, 2018

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Sometimes it’s about what an artist doesn’t do, as much as what he does.

Austin-based singer-songwriter Jeremy Nail, last encountered soon after the release of his 2016 autobiographical tour de force My Mountain, never oversings and never overplays. Every element of his handcrafted Americana is precise and intentional and serves the song. His sound is spare because his songs are spare—both plainspoken and artful, poetic and direct. Like the landscapes its characters often inhabit, Jeremy Nail’s new album Live Oak is full of stark beauty and a dusty, resilient soulfulness.

Nail comes by the struggle narrated in his music honestly. In 2013, while playing guitar in Alejandro Escovedo’s touring band, he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that attacked the muscles of his left leg, eventually forcing his doctors to amputate. My Mountain was the harrowing yet ultimately life-affirming story of Nail’s journey through illness and loss to learning to walk again.

Live Oak—named for the 600-year-old Treaty Oak tree in Austin that was inexplicably attacked with poison in 1989, yet survived to flourish again—chronicles the next stage of Nail’s recovery and recommitment to his craft. As thoughtful as My Mountain was, it was also animated by a fiery determination that edged into defiance at times. Despite sharing similar themes, Live Oak feels more contemplative in nature—the intensity remains, but it feels like there’s less urgency attached to it this time.

The album opens with gorgeous, silvery guitar and a crystalline image: “Underneath a velvet sky / A two lane road past the city limits sign / Where the mountains come into view / Once you get through Abiquiu.” The emotional landscape Nail paints with these words and melodies is distinct: airy, wide open, and quietly majestic. The song (“Abiquiu”) itself is about a passage, from darkness into light, from pain to renewal: “There is a light on the other side / From the river through the canyon / I’m alive / I’m alive.” (The latter declaration being the thread running through both my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 My Mountain and Live Oak—a celebration of survival.) “Here in God’s country,” Nail sings, “There is no glory without suffering / You’ll dance between the two / On the chance you make it through.”

The subsequent title track draws the analogy between Nail and this album’s namesake tree closely: “I was torn limb from limb… Dead leaves falling underneath as I come back new again / Strong as a Live Oak.” A handful of indelible notes played by guest guitarist Chris Masterson underscore the message, turning a moment’s meditation into a gentle anthem.

While the bulk of the album has a laid-back, quiet-moment-on-the-porch-at-sunset kind of feel, a few songs push harder. “Fields Of Our Fathers” and “Rolling Dice” offer a little bounce, the former livened by electric strums and an atmospheric synth wash, while sunny slide notes decorate the latter. The extended “Freedom’s Bell” is warm and evocative, another seemingly autobiographical tune: “I’ve been waiting for this moment / To say what’s done is done / When it all came crashing, I was just a hired gun / Living someone else’s dream, hiding in plain sight / Then there was a reckoning, I know when I see a sign.” From singing of “this broken shell” he moves toward this triumphant final verse: “I got a second chance to live and do things my own way / Now, this bitter, broken world, it ain’t that bad a place / There is a constant source of light, at times I’ve been so blind / When you let go of control, all you can do is fly.” In nearly dying, Nail won ultimate freedom.

In the closing third of the album, Nail expands his sonic palette, with “Sea Of Lights” featuring a pulsing organ on a light-footed blues, while “Hope And Fear” adds a fresh dimension with trumpet lending extra lilt. “So Long, Yesterday” offers a dusty third-person love song highlighted by a single terrific line: “Waltzing with the shadows ’til she walked in that night.”

Pleasant as it is, the second half of the album is largely eclipsed by the superb number waiting at the end. Closer “Till Kingdom Come” offers a sublime, gorgeous coda to both My Mountain and Live Oak: “This reflection staring back at me / Standing on my own two feet / One is made of flesh and bone / The devil danced with the other one… I haven’t made it to the mountaintop / I’m learning to live with what I’ve got / To wake with each and every day / To trust in every step I take.” Beyond revisiting his own journey, Nail offers an elegy for his fellow cancer patients who didn’t make it: “To the ones that did not survive / I wish we could have had more time / Notes they ring into the stars / From the strings of this guitar / Your memory brings this song to light / You’re living on, beyond my sight.”

The magic trick Nail pulls off here yet again is to make a song about being acutely conscious of your own mortality feel celebratory rather than sad; “Kingdom Come” is a beautiful tune, full of light and positive energy, and a great finish to the album. And the message it conveys, written between the lines of almost every song on both Live Oak and My Mountain, is simple and powerful: cherish every moment life gives you.

Live Oak might lack some of the visceral appeal of its more steely-eyed predecessor, but its subtler charms mark it as a grower, the bright and promising opening stanza of a new chapter of Jeremy Nail’s next chance at life.

Rating: B+

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