Grant Lee Phillips is one of those songwriters who has stuck around. He’s the healthy-looking fellow at the corner of the bar, smile curled around the corner of his mouth to signal he’s down for a chat, that he’s got stories you wouldn’t believe. In the world of country music, there’s value in his brand of wisdom. Phillips is not, however, a member of the laureled Nashville royalty.
Grant-Lee Phillips has a voice glorious and strong enough that he could sing nearly anything and his loyal fan base would be happy to hear it. But after moving from California to Tennessee in 2013, Phillips sounds like a happier and invigorated man on 2016's The Narrows, which boasts a lively and engaging spark. On the surface, The Narrows doesn't feel all that much peppier than most of Phillips' solo catalog, but the pace of this music is less lazy than contemplative.
For his eighth album, Grant- Lee Phillips has composed a sturdy set of 13 songs that are by turns cleansing (Tennessee Rain), bucolic (Taking On Weight In Hot Springs – in which the narrator is moving “slower than molasses”), old-time Western (Holy Irons) or questing (Moccasin Creek – in which the protagonist is looking for a new beginning by dipping his feet in the eponymous stream). The largely rural subject matter can be seen to reflect Phillips’s move to Nashville after decades in Los Angeles – perhaps seeking not only peace, quiet and the space to breathe, but also safety from the subject of track 12, San Andreas Fault. Phillips has also said he feels a connection to the homelands of his Native American ancestors: “I’m captivated by the stories and the energy here.
After spending the entirety of his 20-plus year career based in his home state of California, Grant-Lee Phillips picked up his acoustic guitar and moved to another American music hub: Tennessee. Years earlier, Jerry Roe, grandson of country music rebel Jerry Reed, offered to put together a band with him if he ever decided to record in Nashville, so for The Narrows, Phillips took Roe up on his offer, opting to record his eighth LP with a small trio, including drummer Roe and session bassist Lex Price (k.d. lang, Taylor Swift, Shemekia Copeland).The results see the 52-year-old singer/songwriter expanding on the rootsy, Americana sound he's experimented with over his past few albums.
The Upshot: Erstwhile Grant Lee Buffalo mainman’s first collection of songs in years is consistently beautiful. It’s been almost five years since Grant-Lee Phillips last put out a solo record, but time has certainly not diminished his song writing at all, which is sharper than ever. His latest, The Narrows, his eighth solo record, is easily one of his best.
Grant-Lee Phillips’s days fronting Grant Lee Buffalo seem like a quaint memory now that the singer-songwriter has settled into a deeply satisfying solo career. This confident new album is among his finest works, a terrific showcase for his finely honed, deeply humane songcraft. His move from Los Angeles to Nashville has clearly influenced the sound and themes here; some of the best songs are marked by restlessness, and accented by pedal steel and nimble acoustic guitars (“San Andreas Fault”).