“You Oughta Be” opens with a line that Ross says had been swimming in his head for a while. “In the morning, maybe we can lay together - like white lines - on the turnpike.” “You can almost tell where the rest of the song is going from that one line,” he told me. “That kind of pressure was scary, but I like those two songs a lot. They were recorded in their infancy, which is something I rarely get a chance to do.”
“Halfway to Wonderland” was released on May 8. It’s an “All Killer- No Filler” affair. The record is full of future classics, including the confessional, semi-comical “Mostly Sober,” which Ross says was “like a science experiment” in terms of making every syllable have a purpose. The country-blues burner “Jack and Jill (Bottom of my Grave)” conjures “Bringing it all Back Home”-era Dylan tag-teaming with Springsteen and Levon Helm. It smokes.
Many of the same Nashville heavy hitters who assisted with Ross’s first album are back on “Wonderland,” including recording and mixing engineer Ben Strano and producer Jack Sundrud, longtime bassist for Poco. “We really hit it off the first time and I thought, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’” Ross explained.
Although his albums to date have been recorded in Nashville, Ross’s music is more roots/Americana/folk than textbook country.
Steel guitar, electric guitar and banjo on “Wonderland” were handled by Russ Pahl, a beloved and in-demand Nashville cat who has contributed to albums by Rascal Flatts, Miranda Lambert, Brooks & Dunn, Gretchen Wilson, Buddy Miller, Montgomery Gentry and countless others.
New sounds for Ross on this album include soulful backing vocals and Michael Webb’s Hammond B3 organ on the driving “Fallin’ Apart.” Ross said he was happily surprised when two very busy session singers agreed, with little notice, to add some sweet, soulful backing to his song. “Every time I go there, it seems to work out that the people I want are available. Gale and Angie are the kind of people who make you happy to be alive.”
Halfway through “Halfway to Wonderland” is a light-hearted “fly on the studio wall” moment captured during the sessions. The ladies laugh heartily before Chris, in his signature deadpan delivery, states “I’ll try to rein myself in.” That’s followed by more laughter before Webb’s B3 brings us into the next song, “Lost in Love.” It’s a wonderful moment of comic relief and impossible to hear without smiling.
“Your America” is a song that could bring Ross a lot of attention. Two days after writing it, he uploaded a video demo on YouTube and received a stream of glowing comments as fans shared it online. “I was worried I was going to say something that might piss people off,” Ross explained. “I consciously put in some of those lines like, ‘The man that’s in the mirror, he’s braver than most’ to balance it out.” Essentially, the song says, “Yeah, things are kind of screwed up, but this is still a great country.” Ross’s gentle acoustic guitar and the sweet, plaintive fiddle of Tammy Rogers of Nashville bluegrass band The Steeldrivers accompany the song.
With “Halfway to Wonderland,” Ross has delivered a follow-up that is even richer and deeper than his impressive debut. It’s only a matter of time before everyone else catches on and Chris finds himself in demand outside of Maine. He’s ready for that. “In the immediate future I’ll be based out of here, but what I really need in my soul is to play for people who have never heard me before. People here are really supportive, but they know what I do. I really crave that feeling of having fresh ears and being the new guy again.”
Chris Ross tells the story behind each song on the new album.
‘You Oughta Be’
I wrote this in Nashville a couple of days before I started recording. That first line had been swimming in my head for a while – “The white lines on the turnpike” - and I liked the imagery. You can almost tell where the rest of the song is going from that line. It’s about how, depending where people are in their lives, love can sometimes feel right in the moment even when you both know it ain’t going to work because there are too many distractions.
‘Maybe it’s Me’
This is the first song I wrote after coming home from recording “The Steady Stumble.” The melody and riff came first, which is something that rarely happens – usually there’s a story I want to tell or a place I want to take it. Like “You Ought Be,” the lyrics are also about trying to make the relationship work when you know it can’t - “Swimmin’ in the could’ve beens, drowning in the should’ve seas.” There’s a fine line where you want to write songs that people can relate to, but you also want it to be better than anything you’ve done before. For me, it’s like, “What words can I use? What imagery can I conjure up?”
‘She Never Stays Gone’
I wrote this between “Maybe it's Me” and “Your America.” It's about being caught up on someone and watching life take its course - knowing it was damned from the start but not caring because when it was good (however briefly), it was so good. Arizona just seems like the most opposite place on Earth from here, so that's where the love interest is pulled. It’s a place I can’t relate to, and can't imagine living.
I almost looked at this song as, “Let’s make it like a science experiment – let’s make every syllable have a purpose.” This song seems to have really struck a chord with people. This one came faster than the other songs on the record. I wrote it in an afternoon, while the others took a few days of toying with. When I write, I rarely use a pen and paper. I’ll put it down after I’ve written it in my head.
Again, the lick came first, which doesn’t usually happen. I intended to write it as more of a sad song, but the more I kept writing, the more positive the song became. It’s kind of a love song or a lust song about a failed attempt at a romance. It was fun and I had a great time. There was some brief happiness there and the power of that, even for a moment, can never be underestimated.
‘Lost in Love’
This song came from messing around with some minor 7th chords. I remember having some trouble with that song just trying to figure which chord to go to. Some of the chord changes are beautiful, but they’re kind of unnatural for me – more like jazz and R&B chords. I wanted to write something from a female perspective and ended up singing about this character which is really every girl I’ve ever known who’s had a rough go at relationships.
I don’t want to be political and I thought maybe I should just stay away from that topic altogether, but it’s gotten great feedback from everybody. When I write, I think about the people who like my music. “Is this something people want to hear? Is it something they’ll respond to?” And I think that’s why I’ve had such a good track record of putting out albums without a lot of filler. I write it because I like it, but I’m also thinking of the audience.
I wrote this song literally the day before going into the studio in an, “I’ve got to write this friggin’ song or else I’m in trouble” kind of way. I realized that I had written songs that could be perceived as me saying, “Why does all of this bad stuff happen to me? I’m such a great guy (laughing).” This was a song to say, “I’ve messed up plenty of stuff too,” which I think will resonate. There are more people out there who have made mistakes than people who haven’t, and there aren’t many songs about that. You tend to only see things in hindsight, in the starkest of terms. I like that it ends on a positive note. I had a girl in my head when I was writing that – you always have somebody that you’re thinking about. It’s a sad song, but it offers the possibility of a happy ending.
‘Jack and Jill (Bottom of my Grave)’
I wrote this with a mood in mind. I knew the album needed something a little meaner, a little unclean. I don't know where the first line came from, but once I sang "Jack was into Jill,” it was obvious that the next line was going to be "Jill was in the cabinets." Those two phrases told me all I needed to know. If you listen to the version I put on YouTube the night I wrote it, you’ll hear that it was twice as fast. The night before recording it, I was the only one awake and was going through the songs - just playing them to myself kind of quiet so I wouldn’t wake anybody in the house. I lowered the key a full step and slowed it down just to go over the words in my head. The next day at the studio, I tried it both ways and it was unanimous to do it slower and lower. It made the song a little grittier and gave it a slow burn that I hadn’t had in a song before. An album just isn't an album without somebody dying.
‘Last Last Call‘
This one had to be last – it asked for it. I wrote it from the perspective of a guy who, if he absolutely had to decide, “What do you care about more – the music or the relationship?” he’s always going to go with the music. From the title, you can tell that it’s country. There’s never been a more country-sounding title than “Last Last Call.” But it’s more like the Gram Parsons-style of country than anything else.
See him while you can. Upcoming Chris Ross live shows include a CD release party at Chummie’s in Ellsworth, Friday, May 18 at 9:30 p.m., Saturday, May 19 at Finback Alehouse in Bar Harbor at 10, Saturday, May 26 at Paddy Murphy’s in Bangor at 9:30 and Friday, June 8 at Ipanema in Bangor beginning at 9:30.
“Halfway to Wonderland” is available on CD at all Bull Moose locations, CDBaby.com (CD and download) and iTunes.