Does Mo Pitney’s “Ain’t Lookin’ Back” avoid the mythical “Second Album Syndrome”?
It’s taken a long time to put together the follow-up to Mo Pitney’s warmly received debut album Behind This Guitar. Honest, homespun stories told with a lightness of touch and a lack of arrogance and ego were the album’s characteristic, delivered with the kind of voice that was born to sing country music. The almost 4 year wait for a follow-up has made Ain’t Lookin’ Back one of the most hotly anticipated albums of the year.
When you hear A Music Man for the first time, you might think it an odd or brave choice as the first track on a new album. It’s pretty downbeat, a little dour, almost melancholic sounding. But when you listen to it, it becomes clear that it’s a natural bookend (and so, for that matter, is the last track on the album, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). It’s a statement song, and in some ways it’s the successor to the track Behind This Guitar. But where that was a somewhat light and playful view of his life and career, A Music Man is a much more open hearted articulation of Mo’s drive and inspiration as a musician. It’s kind of heavy too, in the sense that you can feel the burden that Mo has to do what he’s doing – it’s not just out of choice, but as a calling and a purpose. Joining Mo on the track is Jamey Johnson, and his presence as something of a gnarly, battle hardened “elder statesman” figure gives it all the more weight. It’s a beautifully aching song. Just check these lyrics –
I didn’t come here to be famous, or to see my name in lights
I didn’t come here for the money, awards don’t even cross my mind
But as long as I can remember, I’ve had a guitar in my hand
It’s like God looked at me from heaven, and said “I think I’ll make a music man”
And it’s deep down in my bones, woven in my heart and soul
Just a kid there on my bed, trying to get out what hurt his head
Title track Ain’t Lookin’ Back has a steady, shuffling gait that seems to gather momentum and gives the sense of travel and movement, fitting for a song about leaving things behind and stepping into the future. As one of the pieces that was released ahead of the album, it makes for a great sampler as it contains many of the major themes of the album – freedom, redemption, purpose, motivation, positivity – in a lyric that almost anyone can identify with. It’s also an irresistibly catchy toe tapper of a tune.
There’s a bluegrass contribution in Old Home Place, a track that doesn’t just sound like bluegrass but the lyric does too. Its the story of a boy who leaves his rural home having fallen in love with a girl from the city. He changed his life for her, but she was unfaithful to him, and now he’s left with no job, no home and no girl. The album credits this track to feature “His All Star Band”, which includes such luminaries as Ricky Skaggs and Marty Stuart, so it’s the real deal. Some might find it a slightly jarring interlude, but I think it’s good fun and it adds a little something different to the mix.
When Mo sings “I know I was born with an old soul” on Old Stuff Better, a song that makes you think about how much new things really do improve on the old they’re meant to replace, you find yourself nodding in agreement with him because he does have that kind of thing about him. As a guy in this twenties plying his country music trade in this day and age, his style of music harks back more to the early 1990’s and he’s never been shy about his influences from that era, and earlier. More than that, his style of voice and the way he uses it is very reminiscent of that time span too. He sings in a way that people like Keith Whitley and Randy Travis did back then. It gives him an ability to cross generations ad appeal to different ages of fans.
Boy Gets The Girl is probably the closest the album comes to an obvious “radio friendly” track. It has that same kind of beat as Body Like A Back Road and so many other chart records over the last few years, but done a littel softer and without any finger snaps or similar production tropes. It sounds like it could’ve been an Old Dominion song, and Matt Ramsey and Trevor Rosen from the band did contribute to the writing on the album – but not on this track. They actually have a co-write credit on Plain and Simple, which doesn’t sound so much like an OD song – and that’s probably why they gave the song away. It fits perfectly with Mo, though, in both sentiment and in sound.
You don’t have to agree with everything an artist says or does to appreciate their music and their talent. Religion in music is one topic that has the potential to switch fans off. On Behind This Guitar he closed the album with the hymn-like Give Me Jesus (anyone who was there when he sang it on a Sunday morning on the Indigo stage at C2C a couple of years ago will know just how much akin to a religious experience that was). For this second album it’s Jonas, a Dean Dillon/Tom Douglas song about the crucifixion of Jesus told from the perspective of a man who drove the nails into Jesus on the cross, but with its own redemptive aspect. As I hinted earlier, it’s a fitting closing bookend. I think it’s significant, for Mo at least, that the final words he’s chosen to utter on the album are these –
Yes I take Him at His word
He’s my shield and sword
No lunatic, no liar, He’s my Lord
One thing that I really admire about Mo is his faith, and the way that he doesn’t feel any need to separate the personal and private expression of that faith from his professional self. When you listen to the lyrics he sings, there’s nothing there that could be considered overly sexualised or that treats women in anything less than a respectful way, for example. Listen to the fidelity of Right Now With You, the patience and loyalty across the miles of ‘Til I Get Back To You or the undisguised joy of Plain and Simple. You’ll hear clearly how the gentle, quite innocent romance in those songs contrasts with the much more direct and often less sophisticated lines doled out by many of his contemporaries. The exuberant, nudge-and-a-wink play-on-words of Local Honey, set to a shuffling rhythm & blues arrangement, is easily the most suggestive song on the album, but it’s all relative. It seems evident that his faith and the values he draws from it influence and inform his song choices. I think that’s something that adds to the idea of authenticity that comes with Mo Pitney, just as much as whatever era the sounds or instrumentations on his songs are deemed to belong.
If the idea of late 80’s / early 90’s country music brought into today with clean, crisp production and arrangements, performed by a young man who sings it like he’s lived it is something that appeals to you, then Ain’t Lookin’ Back should be right in your wheelhouse. Mo has kept his sound intact while rediscovering his sense of purpose, and producer Jim “Moose” Brown has applied something a little lighter and brighter to the project while keeping things largely quite simple. If I were to be harsh, I’d say the album suffers a little from a lack of one real standout track. But that might be something that comes with time as there isn’t one dud song to be found here either. Second album syndrome? Sophomore slump? Not a chance.
Mo Pitney – “Ain’t Lookin’ Back” – Released on August 14th on Curb Records
- A Music Man (feat. Jamey Johnson)
- Right Now With You
- Ain’t Bad For A Good Ol’ Boy
- ‘Til I Get Back To You
- Looks Like Rain
- Boy Gets The Girl
- Ain’t Lookin’ Back
- Old Home Place (feat. His All-Star Band)
- Plain and Simple
- Mattress On The Floor
- Local Honey
- Old Stuff Better
A Music Man, Ain’t Lookin’ Back, Plain and Simple
Six Shooter Rating
8 out of 10