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Joel Thetford returns with new album ‘Jacksboro Highway’

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2020 has been full of events that tend to get a person thinking about home. Maine-based singer and songwriter Joel Thetford says he’s been thinking a lot about his current and former homes this year.

The musician, known for his Americana and alt-country roots music has been on a prolific songwriting jag lately, and says home is very much on his mind as he releases his fifth album “Jacksboro Highway,” named for the storied stretch of road from which he hails.

Thetford grew up around the honky-tonks and rodeo bars of Fort Worth, Texas, where he absorbed the music of artists like Jerry Jeff Walker and Robert Earl Keen. He worked as a professional bull rider before moving to Maine about 15 years ago. Here, he found some like-minded musicians and friends, including the Mallett Brothers Band, and Luke and Will Mallett’s father, Dave, who convinced him to go all in with his music.

Jacksboro Highway, part of Texas State Highway 199, running out of Fort Worth, consists of only about seven miles of road, but its dark history of murder, prostitution, gambling and drug-running, served as the inspiration for the title song on Thetford’s new album. “It’s the highway to Hell,” Thetford warns in the chorus. “It’ll cut you down.”

For the record, Thetford says there’s a lot to like about that area of Texas today, and many folks there, like a lot of Mainers he says, would give you the shirt off their back. But the area’s history is part of his life which made it a subject to explore in his music.

Thetford says he intended to release “Jacksboro Highway” last spring and planned to support it via a series of live shows and appearances before Covid altered everyone’s schedule.

“Since I had the time, I rewrote some of the songs and ended up recording more,” Thetford said. “One of the first songs I wrote for it was ‘The Truth’ which came out as a single in the spring.”

Thetford wrote “The Truth” after a prolonged bout of writer’s block. The personal song deals with a legal nightmare back in Texas that involved his sister which became the subject of an A&E documentary that aired earlier this year.

“These songs were all fairly new when I took them into the studio,” Thetford said. “I wanted the songs to reflect where I’m at in my life at the moment so I could really relate to the lyrics when I sang them.”

There’s a smoothness to the tone of Thetford’s voice on his new record that’s been mostly absent from his earlier albums. He chalks it up to the fact that he quit smoking and drinking after becoming seriously ill last March. Thetford says he doesn’t know if he had contracted Covid-19 since widescale testing wasn’t yet possible.

Mostly homebound since then, Thetford says he spends a lot of time with his guitar and never watches television (outside of the occasional movie), which leaves a lot of time for songwriting. He says he’s written upwards of 40 new songs this year but admits that some have yet to be completed.

“I’ve been doing a lot of self-healing,” Thetford said. “Part of that involves physically taking care of myself. Things have certainly been different, but I feel pretty good. I can breathe and I no longer have that deep raspy thing going on with my voice.”

“Harmony” is an apolitical centerpiece on “Jacksboro Highway,” featuring a clear-voiced Thetford pleading for unity at a time when the country appears to be divided. Suspicious of news organizations pushing an agenda, Thetford says he avoids watching and believes the basic truth inherent in the concept of peace and love, as he sings in the song, is something we all want and need.

“I do think we all need harmony right now and I’ve never written a song like this where I’m reaching out to people but I think about this a lot, so I wanted to write about it.”

Thetford shared a video for “Harmony” on his YouTube channel which was shot recently at Fort Williams State Park in Cape Elizabeth.

“If You Don’t Mind” is the album’s only cover song, written by Alec Gross, and was produced and recorded by drummer Dan Capaldi. A different arrangement of the song opened “Live at Port City Music Hall,” a live benefit album released last spring by the Joel Thetford Band.

“Jacksboro Highway” closes on a note of bright poppy optimism with “Easy Go,” a song Thetford describes as “kind of a fun track.” Its sparkling Farfisa organ intro might remind you of Judy Collins’s version of “Both Sides Now” or The Stone Poneys’ “Different Drum,” while the lyrics tell the story of a breakup that first brought the singer to his knees only until he realized it was a blessing in disguise.

The cover photograph depicting an inner raindrop-splattered window on what appears to be a tour bus in motion was shot in Conejo Valley, CA, by Lindsey Best.

Thetford is currently working on his sixth LP which he says will be “an acoustic album that so far has kind of a Jason Isbell vibe.” He plans to release it in the spring, hopefully followed by a series of live shows.

“Jacksboro Highway” was recorded and produced by Ryan Ordway at The Studio in Portland and features appearances from a number of local and nationally known players.

Each member of Thetford’s band make an appearance, along with current and former Mallett Brothers Band members. Ryan Hormmel of Amos Lee’s band adds pedal steel while Peter Keys, currently of Lynyrd Skynyrd and formerly of P-Funk and SeepeopleS, plays keyboards. Former Mainers Adam Kurtz and Elijah Ocean appear on pedal steel and electric guitar, respectively. The record was mixed by Jonathan Wyman and mastered by Adam Ayan at Gateway Mastering in Portland.

Last modified on Tuesday, 01 December 2020 09:12

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