A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange by Carey Driscoll
Since he's largely unknown, a little background about Tim Flannery: he played major league baseball for 11 years (San Diego Padres), managed in their minor league system, and now coaches third base for them. Now forget that background! He's played music and written songs his entire life, having come from a musical home. "Highway Song" is his fifth album (including one very limited-release live CD last year), and a very good follow up to 1999's excellent Pieces Of The Past.
Pieces found Flannery taking his acoustic-based music all the way back to his Kentucky bluegrass/folk/Celtic/American Indian roots, and Highway Song continues that journey, but in a slightly more subdued manner. Flannery writes personal songs with universal themes, and does so with a skill that is the equal of the universally recognized "best" writers around. He's surrounded by most of the same excellent musicians and vocalists who played on Pieces (and who form his live band), most notably monster multi-instrumentalist Dennis Caplinger, Doug Pettibone (Jewel, Lucinda Williams), producer (and past Kerrville winner) Jeff Berkley, and vocalists Randi Driscoll (no relation), Eve Selis, and Dani Carroll.The album opens with Son Of A Coal Minin' Man, which begins with a haunting combination of acoustic guitar, fiddle, and Uilleann Pipes, and swells into a rollicking bluegrass hoedown tribute to the coal miners in his family and its Kentucky homeland. "Farther Down The Road" is a recently completed song that has its' origins about 5 years ago, when Flannery was very ill with a mysterious ailment. Frustrated at both the illness and the inability of doctors to diagnose it, he basically challenged God to either take him, or let him get back to the business of living his life. Needless to say, he's living - quite well, and quite happily.
Flannery's songs typically reflect his personality and his life. He's a Christian, but not a proselytizer. Instead, his "good family man" personality takes the form of positive messages - the glass is always far more than half-full - sung in a very good, very easy-to-listen-to voice. The vocals on this album are mixed a little bit more out front than on "Pieces" and, although the instrumental accompaniment still contains plenty of hot licks, the effect is a slightly more subdued overall sound. The upside is that the lyrics are easy to understand, and Flannery's pleasant voice never gets lost in the mix.
Flannery's songs are frequently inspired by things he's seen while on the road with his baseball career, or written as a relief - an escape - from the toil of that lifestyle. A notable exception is The Baseball Song, in which he decries the current state of the sport many of us grew up playing because we loved it, not for the fortunes it might earn us. Substitute your personal passion for the baseball theme, and it becomes a universal allegory (or is it a metaphor? - I'm still not sure I understand the difference).
The title track, Highway Song, speaks with some sadness and regret to the sacrifices we all make, but concludes that the gain exceeds the loss ("When I close my eyes, it's you that I find"). In a more uptempo way, Just This Side Of Heartbreak is of a similar theme. Island Lullaby is exactly that - written upon his recent return to a small South Seas island where "children...play, not even knowing it's the 21st century". Evoking, without actually using, slack key guitar sounds (by use of Dobro and high strung guitar), it's a peaceful paean to the slower, simpler life that he must long for when in the middle of another long baseball season.
Of the 13 songs, 10 are originals. Flannery also covers Mick Hanley's You Have My Word, Kieran Kane's Dirty Little Town, and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings One More Dollar. As on Pieces, which contained songs by no less than Guy Clark and John Prine, Flannery's songwriting is so good that you can't tell the originals from the covers. One notable difference in his writing is that he now seems to be writing more about people and situations he's observed or created, rather than about himself and those closest to him. Included in this group are "Cold Lonesome Sound", "Waiting On A Friend", and "One More Song" which, fittingly, concludes the album with the following line: "I can sing one more song of lonely nights here without you".
My personal favorites are...........hmmm, I don't think I can rank one above the others. It's a very good album, filled with very good songs of comparable quality and appeal. Not quite, in my opinion, as good (great) as Pieces Of The Past, but then again, I feel that "Pieces" was of Grammy-nomination quality, had it been more widely distributed. Highway Song is "very highly recommended"; Pieces is a "must have".
Although Highway Song will be more widely distributed, and therefore more easily found, than his previous works, a couple of sure sources for it (and song clips) are: http://www.TimFlannery.com or http://www.psbrecords.com