Songwriter Chance Meyer digs down to his Ozark roots to tell tales of small-town America over the gossamer harmonies of Nicole Noël and twangy sonic luster of The Bloody 98s on this “greatest Americana album no one’s heard.”
There was an empty space in the alt-country landscape that you may not have noticed until Ashdown filled it. For fans of Jason Isbell, Ryan Adams, Whiskeytown, or Lucinda Williams, this album will feel familiar—like it’s always been there. But, as unexpected as it is from an unknown South Florida bar band like The Bloody 98s, Ashdown takes the genre, and Gram Parson’s legacy, to new places. Put simply, Ashdown is a secret worth knowing.
Meyer’s songwriting delivers imagery and references that will churn up lost memories for anyone who grew up in small-town America, like those “two yellow lines disappearing in the night between the pines” on Highway 23. There are poignant moments, like the confession in Tenkiller, “the one I regret the most is a lie I never told,” or the wry warning in the title track Ashdown, “if you keep saying things are gonna change, one day you’ll be right.” There are also hyper-honest moments, like Meyer’s remembering in the defiant anti-Nashville pop anthem Country Stars, “you told me I was just some white trash boy with a cigarette burn.”
It is no coincidence that murder makes an appearance on the album. Meyer and singing partner Nicole Noël met as death row lawyers and went on to teach together as law professors. A writer of more than songs, Meyer’s scholarship on folklore and the death penalty has been widely published in law and sociology journals. Ashdown never strays into the erudite or technical, but Meyer’s and Noël’s experiences with violent crime and broken communities run always just beneath its surface.
The album’s depth of substance is supported by high production quality, making it easy to forget that The Bloody 98s are an unknown, unsigned, local South Florida band with no aspirations beyond making great music. Recorded in Fort Lauderdale at 42nd Street Studios with owner-operator Marc Loren, the true-to-life capturing of Meyer’s 1959 Gibson J50 and the creaking recesses of Ben Manburg’s 1952 Kay upright bass gives Ashdown a timeless quality. Add a weeping pedal steel played by Jim Felicio, R. Alan Wood’s roiling B3, and arrangements painstakingly constructed by Loren and Meyer, and Ashdown becomes a thrilling listening experience.
Ashdown also has deeply embedded layers of meaning that only reveal themselves in later listens. For instance, the lushly textured Leachville does not seem at first to be a murder ballad, but it is. Leachville tells the true story of the 2016 killing of farmer Mike Wallace in a dispute over Dicamba drift along the Arkansas-Missouri border. That pear tree with dead leaves Meyer sings about being twenty feet from where Wallace is buried really is there, it’s leaves really were blackened from “where that poison rode the breeze,” and there is a careworn farming community for whom Meyer speaks when he sings “now the only prayer we know is to Monsanto.”
If the heart and soul of the band’s sound is Meyer’s and Noël’s harmonies, the heart and soul of the band is guitarist Walt Milner and drummer Scott Costa. Making musical contributions of memorable vamps and studied beats, Milner and Costa were also among the band’s founding members, making sure the project was built first and foremost on friendship.
When the early 1990s Oxford, Mississippi band Blue Mountain sang in its song Bloody 98 about “a tunnel through the pines” with “a cross at every turn,” they weren’t thinking about the stretch of U.S Route 98 that extends down to South Florida. But follow that highway far enough, and that’s where you’ll end up. Chance Meyer did just that, from his hometown in Arkansas, and so the band takes its name from this 1000 miles of treacherous road, connecting their home in South Florida to the regions where their music was born.