Friends, what I’ve come here to tell you today I don’t tell you lightly:
Nick Gusman released one of the best albums of 2018 and you didn’t even know it. I know I certainly wasn’t expecting to be blown away by the record that was tipped to me passively, but as fate would have it, I found an incredible record that touched me in a way that few have and left me inspired by the tones and messages it brought me.
Like most of you reading this, at the time that tip was passed along to me I had no idea who St. Louis native Nick Gusman even was. Naturally, I was curious to find out. “I didn’t actually pick up an instrument till high school. A friend of mine played guitar and taught me the song House of the Rising Sun,” he told me as we began talking. “The only musical member of my family was my Granddad, Manuel Gusman. He played country music in bands all around St. Louis, but unfortunately, he was nearly deaf when I knew him and he had quit.”
The late start didn’t discourage him, however, telling me “I was hooked after I learned to play. I bought my own guitar and started writing songs almost immediately. I don’t think I’ve went a day since then that I didn’t at least attempt to write a song or come up with a melody.”
Nick writes his songs and tells you his stories in a special way. He has a gifted way of using his words to paint emotions and the story he is conveying, drawing you into the universe he is laying out for you and presenting you with every detail of it. It’s the call of a strong songwriter, and it turns out to be a product of study. “I think I got to where I’m currently at musically from hearing Woody Guthrie,” he explained to me.
“Before Woody, I wasn’t really writing such folk-driven or country rooted stuff. From there I went down the rabbit hole of traditional music and all those story songs. That stuff gave me direction,” he said passionately. “As I moved forward into more modern music I was always been inspired by artists that seemed to have also found what I found. The likes of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Townes Van Zandt…”
“Pearl Diver”, one of the early tracks on his debut record “Dear Hard Times” immediately caught my attention and had me stopping the flow of the record to listen to it three full times before moving on, a rare occurrence for me as I listen to records for the first time. There was something about the song. It was gritty, and dark, but in a beautiful way. In a way that left me soaked on the banks of my own river, hearing the story of the men diving the Mississippi River for decorative pearl. As I listened to it over and over I found myself unable to deny that the song invoked the spirit of the late great Townes Van Zandt. That it was the kind of song Townes would listen to and silently admire for its masterful storytelling and musicianship.
“I haven’t written too many like that,” he explained as we spoke about the song. “I’m glad that one came together. I think I wrote it over the course of a whole day. One of those days where the phone didn’t ring much and I didn’t have to work. I was on a mission and it was stuck in my head. I was so in the zone I probably didn’t put on pants either,” he said with a laugh.
“Dear Hard Times” is an exceptionally honest effort for a debut album. Most artists choose to go with an EP, or a shorter album to save on cost, and even to avoid releasing songs that might not connect with listeners. “Dear Hard Times” comes at you and mows you down with a full slate of 14 all original tracks and 59 minutes of Nick’s excellent, inspired songwriting that left me touched and invigorated after taking it’s journey.
“The album was not an easy task,” he explained as we began to talk about it. “We pressed it to vinyl and CD and put a lot of thought into the artwork. It took a lot of time, money, planning, and hands in the kool-aid. It was however, an easy choice to undertake and stick to, because I knew the product I wanted to end up with.”
Not being his first experience recording an album, Nick used a judicious approach to “Dear Hard Times” in the pursuit of a finished product that had the quality that he had a vision of for the record. “I’ve recorded music before and the approach has always been economical and efficient. One group of people, same gear, cramming in the bones of tracking into 2 days to save money,” he said trailing off with a sense of disenchantment before continuing. “This time I wanted to enjoy every bit of studio time, tailor each song with the best players and instruments, and let them run loose.”
Curious to know the length he went to in achieving that vision I asked him about the recording process. “There are a total of 21 St. Louis players on the record,” he answered, surprising me. “Some of them I knew personally and some were ‘hired guns’ recommended by fellow musicians. I was blown away by the talent I was working with and it was very humbling to work together artistically. I was fortunate enough to work with so many people who helped me grow and realize my vision.
“Dave Werner laid down the bass for every track so his style is all over this record. He is also a great songwriter, and the most seasoned one of us, so he had invaluable input. Nigel Solomon played lead guitar on 6 tracks. When your listening to the record and you hear something tasty, its him. He is definitely one of the best guitar players in town and he plays for the song. Tim Sullivan played most of the keys and organs on the record. Everyone in town knows him and how well he plays. There is nothing he can’t fit into and play it damn well. He was the missing puzzle piece for a number of tracks.”
With that many hands involved in the project I asked how the undertaking of the project went. “I recorded the album at Native Sound, and the professionalism they brought to the process was incredibly important. They are putting out bangers man and they are all so talented. The bulk of my record was tracked and mixed by Ben Majchrzak. He sometimes wore the producer hat and helped me make some crucial choices, offered his creative ideas, helped direct the musicians, and he even played the drums on ‘Pearl Diver’. Working with them no doubt helped make the album what it is.”
And the finished product does not disappoint. The album features a plethora of robust sounds and styles that offer enough variety to appeal to listeners of all kinds. There are sorrowful ballads, selfless introspective reflections, bank robbing songs, and heartfelt love songs. It’s a rich blend of content that doesn’t dwell of just one style, and it still manages to pull them off exceptionally well.
One of the other songs on the record that hung on me heavily was “The Ballad Of Jon Wilson”. As I listened to the story of the man brought up in a hard life fighting to find his own way the weight of the words telling his story weighed on my soul. It was able to do what every great song is designed to do: It seeped into my soul and made me feel. It made me feel hope. Sorrow. Angst. Despair. The song is a powerful display of masterful imagery, and like the story of Jon Wilson and life itself it takes us places that we don’t necessarily want to go to see and hear things we don’t want to know exist, and it draws the curtains back on those things exposing an undeniable raw and real look at what the imperfect life looks like.
The album isn’t all gritty and deep tone setting material, however. There’s the witty and fun “Alone In Mexico”, a song with a distinct south of the border flavor about a bank robber who flees to Mexico and meets up with a pretty senorita who turns out to be more trouble than he bargained for, and “I Can’t Win”, a rocking and rollicking anthem to the way bad luck seems to stack up and snowball out of control from time to time. These songs serve as a great balance to some of the heavier ones on the album.
There’s also the rowdy “Roselle”, a song about life in a small Missouri town. “I think my favorite track we did was Roselle,” Nick said of the album. “It was the only one we tracked live and that was a lot of fun. It’s also about a town that is like home to me in Southern MO.” Since the album’s release, Nick has been working on an official music video for the track, and we’re proud to be premiering it to the world right here at the Armadillo this Friday!
The album expands it’s range even more showing off heart and soul with love songs like the bluesy “Look At Me Now”, and the driving “Fool For You”, but it’s the introspective tracks where “Dear Hard Times” truly shines. The songs that we can all take and relate to various parts of our own lives.
While plenty of songs fit that bill it’s “Left Behind” that manages to draw the most reflective feelings while listening to. The song is an honest soul bearing look at the world we live in. The track features a few lines that made an impact on me the first time I heard them and have stuck with me since as some of the most beautifully written reflection I can remember:
“And when they put me on the shelf,
Because it’s better for my health,
They’ll bring me out for show-and-tell,
Stuff me back into my cell,
And leave me singing to myself.”
I really mean what I say when I tell you that “Dear Hard Times” is an album you need to sit down and listen to. Truly listen. Not as background noise, but to sit down and really focus on the songs Nick wrote and presents as a part of this solo debut. There really is something for every kind of listener on this record, something that didn’t happen by chance. “As far as song choices for this record my only rule was that it shouldn’t be thematically monotonous. I wanted the song topics to range from hard working songs, to murder ballads, to longing for a love lost, and even a tale about an outlaw on the run.”
Nick is about to hit the road in support of “Dear Hard Times” heading for the East Coast for a run of shows. “This February tour is mostly around New England,” he began as I asked him about the trip he was preparing embark on. “Fiddle player Sean Kamery and I hit the road in Maverick, the new tour van. Gonna have the album with us for sale at all the dates. We will hit Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania before arriving at Mohawk Place in Buffalo NY.”
Some of the dates are more than just himself, he went on to explain. “I’m most looking forward to 2/16 at Lizzie Rose Music Room in Tuckerton NJ, opening for Hubbie Jenkins of The Carolina Chocolate Drops. Also, 2/21 in Philadelphia at Kung Fu Necktie. It’s a monthly showcase called Baby’s First Rodeo. We open for Karl Blau and Birdie Busch. It’s a cosmic country showcase hosting traveling country/americana acts, with food and western wear vendors, and DJs spinning classic country vinyl. We will even make our way down to Florida for a showcase at Green Door Music Hall on 3/1.
On the itinerary for the upcoming tour:
- February 6th – St. Louis, MO
- February 7th – Louisville, KY
- February 8th – Paducah, KY
- February 10th – Cleveland, OH
- February 11th – Stroudsburg, PA
- February 12th – Buffalo, NY
- February 14th – Hartford, CT
- February 15th – New York, NY
- February 16th – Tuckerton, NJ
- February 17th – Providence, RI
- February 18th – Somerville, MA
- February 19th – Manchester, NH
- February 21st – Philadelphia, PA
- February 24th – Cool Ridge, WV
- February 26th – Nashville, TN
- March 1st – Fort Walton Beach, FL
- March 2nd – Carrollton, GA
Friends, I really do hope you take the time to stop and lend your ears this record, and Nick Gusman. Nick has a rare gift as a songwriter to tap into the power of a song and maximize it’s potential, leaving you stunned in it’s wake. As a student of the songwriting craft he has found his own way to draw listeners into his songs and deliver their messages straight to listeners hearts and minds.
The songs of Nick Gusman speak, friends. And I’d hate for any of you to miss a word of the message they offer.
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