Featured Artist October 2007: Rich McCulley

Okay, everybody. Throw away your preconceived notions of what you thought Americana music was supposed to sound like. Rich McCulley, the Twirl Radio Artist of the Month for October 2007 has just released Cerro Gordo. And this changes everything. For the better!

About a decade ago, Fresno native Rich was in a band called Sparklejet, (Twirl Artists of the Month back in June). Together, they were cranking out 100% all-American rock throughout the Central Valley of California. As Sparklejet got deeper into hard rock, Rich ultimately left to pursue his rootsier solo career, first in San Francisco, and now in Los Angeles. He even did a brief stint with Sacramento’s beloved Sweet Vine, long since disbanded.

Let me just put it out there: I love Cerro Gordo! This is one of those albums that you put on the car CD player, start driving around, and before you know it, you’re already on track 8. By that time, it’s too late–you’re hooked! Driving around on a warm day with this album playing is as natural as breathing air (smog to us Californians).

Confessional. Familiar. Comfortable. Self-deprecating. Tough, without being nasty. It’s not rockabilly. Nor is it country-rock. Cerro Gordo, Rich’s fourth album, is the new face of Americana music. Much like his influences, Paul Westerberg and Jeff Tweedy, Rich does have a classic Americana raspy voice, and pays close attention to his storytelling. He sweats the details. But the album doesn’t exactly sound like the music created in the genre’s traditional heartland hotspots of Belleville, IL or Minneapolis. Instead, Rich has defined the California strain of Americana.

Sure, there’s some twang on Cerro Gordo, like the low-slung riffs on I Finally Lost. This 3:47 of ear candy sonically ingratiates itself deep into your soul, while speaking of a guy who regrets his youthful arrogance and ruthlessness. There’s some tasteful mandolin licks on Forever California, one of the centerpiece tracks of the album. But there’s a lot more going on than this use of an instrument associated with country music. This upbeat song defines the essence of California as well as any Brian Wilson epic. You can practically feel the warmth of the sun, see the sparkling water, and hear the roar of the Mustang convertible propelling you and your loved one forward along Pacific Coast Highway.

There’s also the Grass Roots-like pure pop bliss of Sad Sound. The leadoff track, Forget It All Again, has a slightly ominous tone as Rich cautiously enters a new relationship, wiser and more careful than before. And the other centerpiece track of the album is the wonderful duet with Amy Farris, I Never Really Loved You, which works well for me on many levels. First of all, Amy’s vocals step to the forefront on this one. And those lyrics–Rich and co-writer Mark Bransfield both summarily dismiss their previous 10-year relationships with their women:

I never really loved you / I just drank too much
Once I got to know you / I couldn’t drink enough…
I must have been high / To stay on that ride…
3,650 days / is all it took to get away

A powerful statement, indeed. Rich’s declaration of independence, more witty than bitter. In fact, this whole album is rather upbeat–more optimistic about relationships than his previous effort, 2005’s Far From My Angel, which he told me was “a concept album, the concept being divorce”.

All in all, Cerro Gordo is an extremely listenable ten song collection. No filler songs here–in fact, Rich doesn’t even know the meaning of “filler song”, because he is literally incapable of creating one! Congratulations to Rich McCulley, for being the Twirl Artist of the Month for October, 2007!

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