The sweet hills of Appalachia roll up from my sun-blistered bare-feet in all directions. The dirt billows in my wake, strains of emerald green peeking between my toes. The breeze plants a cool kiss on my neck, and the glorious potency of lilacs and marigolds sweep my senses. The summer then relaxes its tender but firm grip on my youth. I probably would never feel quite as vulnerable or free as when I was 13 and coming into my body that summer. The music of Alan Jackson, Dwight Yoakam and Patty Loveless drifts up from the homey farmstead a few hundred yards down to my left, irrevocably superimposed onto my teenage years: frothing with bittersweet lovers, angsty heartbreak and a magnetizing romanticism.
Chilled with three chords and the truth, Christian Lopez ⎯⎯ who harkens from the same sweeping knolls, only further west in the map-dot town of Martinsburg, West Virginia ⎯⎯ lines his pockets with throwback grooves and tumbling bass of the slick Yoakam kind, adorned with his own penetrating swagger and love-torn anecdotes only those Hills could impart. “Step right up, baby, don’t be shy / I want to dance with you till the break of light,” the singer, 21, boasts merrily on “Don’t Wanna Say Goodnight,” a chewy rockabilly number from his second album, Red Arrow, out Sept. 22 on Blaster Records. “This old road, we both know, it’s going to carry me away / Oh, this old road, we both know, it’s going to bring me back some day,” he later meditates on “Some Day,” his wayward spirit collapsing from both the emancipation of and sacrifice for the music.
That’s the price he pays: giving up a part of himself in order to fulfill his life’s work as a musician. “You must give it up,” he stresses in an interview with B-Sides & Badlands. “I’ve learned to hold nothing back. People utilize music to feel as though they’re not alone, at least I do. That’s the wonderful thing about art.”
Over the course of two years, Lopez mounted “a search for vulnerability,” he says. “It’s when you’re at your most uncomfortable when the magic is made.” From the reflective opener “All the Time,” painted with soft brushes of piano and Ruthie Collins on backing vocals, and the gentle throb of “Silver Line” (also haunted by Collins) to “Say Goodbye” (drawing unapologetically from his sly rock ‘n roll gallop) and “1972,” the slow-burning bookend dedicated to his 1972 International Scout truck, he scours the heart for the most painful, the most bittersweet and the most alarmingly simple stories to tell. Red Arrow is luscious but grainy, a vibrant patchwork of old school tones sharpened with exuberant, of-the-moment echoes. Once he headed into pre-production, with roughly 50 songs in his arsenal, he began shifting through each and every song. “We’d dissect each song’s meaning and musical caliber, and by the time we were done, my top 11 had completely changed…but for the better,” he says of collaborating with producer Mashall Altman, known for his work on Frankie Ballard and Eric Paslay records, in addition to writing songs with Ingrid Michaelson and doing A&R at Capitol.
“We made sure that the record had a strong flow, but even more important, a strong narrative. We wanted this to be one piece of art, not just 11 songs on a disc,” Lopez added. The razor-sharp talents of a slew of musicians glues the entire record together. Collins’ lilting voice appears on other such standouts as “Swim the River,” “1972” and “Someday.” Meanwhile, Lopez collected some of the most accomplished players in the business, including Vince Gill, who lays down acoustic guitar on the mournful “Still on Its Feet,” Jerry Roe (Scotty McCreery, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell) on drums and Tony Lucido (The Doobie Brothers, Kelly Clarkson, Dave Barnes) on bass.
The record also contains contributions from Rob McNelley (Kacey Musgraves, Lady Antebellum, Bob Seger), Michael Rojas (Rhonda Vincent, Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan), Stuart Duncan (Marty Stuart, Guy Clark, Alison Krauss) and Mike Haynes (Dierks Bentley, David Nail, Ronnie Milsap). From the supple first chords of “All the Time” to the mellow shake of “1972,” Red Arrow untangles masterfully, the arrangements and vocals landing snugly on the eardrums.
The songwriting, too, swells from a rich swath of storytellers. Having co-written the bulk of the record, except the lone solo writes “Caramel” (featuring Milk Carton Kids’ Kenneth Pattengale) and “Steel on the Water,” Lopez adheres to a singular thematic voice. Dave Berg and Jordan Lawhead lend their pens to “Silver Line”; Gabe Dixon and Marshall Cunningham on “Don’t Wanna Say Goodnight”; Tofer Brown on the breezy “Mexico”; and Josh Williams and Mindy Smith on “Still on Its Feet.”
Within a year of releasing 2015’s Onward, which cemented him as a next generation torchbearer and taught him to be a “leader” in the studio, Lopez knew it was time to begin piecing together the follow-up. From the onset, he learned “to take my time and to give each step of the process 100 percent of myself. As long as you do that, you’ll regret nothing,” he says.
Below, he discusses the album’s thread lines, West Virginia tunes and his proudest moments.
What is the narrative and arc of this album?
Narrative was very important to me with this record. I’ve learned to act my age…and by that I mean I’ve learned to embrace who I am as a young man, not trying to be overly-sophisticated or overly-enlightened. This record is a portrait of a lovesick kid cursed with a dream. It’s true to me, and I know that because that’s the case, it’ll be true to someone else.
What did you learn most from Altman?
So much. I learned to take my time and explore every single sound. But most importantly, Marshall taught me to not be afraid of stylistic barriers. He taught me to do what I want and let the music guide me, and not stay confined to what “genre” you’ve been placed in. This is true artistic freedom, and Marshall made it very clear to me. This record strays into new territories I never thought I’d go, but I couldn’t love it more.
What was it like stepping into the studio with Kenneth Pattengale of the Milk Carton Kids?
It was intimidating. To me, Kenneth is one of the greatest guitarists of all time. When we set up to record “Caramel,” we set up in Milk Carton Kids fashion: just me and him around one mic. I’m a fan boy, so I knew all their songs, I knew his guitar, and I even knew about the white rag he wraps around the end of his guitar neck. It was a dream for me. No rehearsals. He had just had my demo for a couple days, but it couldn’t have gone better. Kenneth is a very generous, sweet guy who cares intensity about music and records. I’m lucky to have him on my record, and I’m lucky to call him a friend.
Aside from your frank, poetic lyrics, what is so compelling about the new album is the sparseness, generally, of the album ⎯⎯ and having so much room to breathe. Did you go in with that approach in mind?
The flow of the album is important. The record needs to breathe so you can annunciate the sprints, and vice versa. Plus, we love musicianship. We had some of the best players in Nashville play on this record and we tried to showcase that.
You’ve plunged headfirst into co-writting for this album. Which collaborators and sessions were most important to your development, as a person and a songwriter?
I found myself writing mostly with the people I met on my first trip down here as an 18-year-old and also the people least connected to the “Music Row songwriter scene.” One prominent writer specifically is my friend, Jordan Lawhead (Swim The River, Silver Line). He’s been an artistic sherpa for me since day one. He’s helped my grow my songwriting abilities and introduced me to other incredible artists. A true example of what Nashville is about.
In which songs do you find the most pride?
I love my record. “Steel On The Water” has a special place in my heart. I wrote it aboard a Navy ship on the last day of the week I spent performing for the sailers. Also “Caramel,” I wrote this song solo, and I love the production on it. And I’d also say “All The Time,” as I wrote it about the struggle of hanging on to your “foolish” dream, whatever that may be and not getting sucked into your plan B.
As a West Virginia native, how has the culture there instilled in you to not be something you’re not?
We do in fact have a very rich culture. However, it’s not just the culture that encourages me to be true to myself. It’s the small town family aspect that reminds me. I remember that no matter what happens they’ll always be there, as will my supportive community. So what do I have to lose? I don’t need to be anything other than what I truly want to be.
The musical heritage of WV is equally as rich. Were there folk/Appalachian songs and traditions or WV-based artists from which you drew or were crucial to your upbringing?
Growing up, I steeped myself in the local music scene. Whether it was the college open mics or the seasoned blues jams, the local scene was my upbringing. It wasn’t until I performed as part of the 2016 WV Music Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony that I really learned about our West Virginian legends. I spent time with WV music icons like Charlie McCoy and Russ Hicks, and I even joined Bill Withers on stage for a performance of “Lean on Me.” I cover Bill Withers in my set to this day. Since then, I’ve fallen in love with the music of Little Jimmy Dickens, Kathy Mattea and many more. These artists have all had a huge impact on me, not only as a proud West Virginian, but as an artist yearning to grow.
Photo Credit: Robby Klein