Going solo after being in a massively successful band is one of the more difficult propositions in the music business. It has rarely been done with any measure of equal success. Projects from titans like Lennon, McCartney, Henley and Frey jump to mind. Petty delivered Full Moon Fever as a solo project, but it was merely a de facto Heartbreakers album. The most notable example from the Texas/Red Dirt scene is Johnny Chops of the Randy Rogers Band releasing a handful of fantastic rock-infused jams that have built a solid solo brand. Cody Canada’s post-Ragweed deserves consideration in this conversation as well, but even that doesn’t mirror what is happening here.
The situation facing Kyle Nix, fiddler of Turnpike Troubadours, isn’t similar to really any others that come to mind. The songs that make up his debut solo album, Lightning on the Mountain and Other Short Stories, began germinating prior to Turnpike’s hiatus. It was a collection of tunes that Nix felt didn’t really fit into what Turnpike was doing as he acknowledges that Evan Felker and RC Edwards have a pretty solid lock on the songwriting for the band. Once, the band was put on ice, Nix decided to forge ahead full speed and create this album. He finished the writing and called on his fellow Turnpike brethren to lay down the tracks. He called in special guests like guitar legend Ian Moore, Kevin “Haystack” Foster from Jason Eady’s band and other colorful characters.
The ensuing result is an album that is sonically much in line with all of Turnpike’s recorded output. That is to be expected given the cast of characters that came together to make it happen. What stands out as a unique is the writing itself and Nix’s vocals. The writing is forthright, imaginative and creative. He does not paint himself into standard Red Dirt corners and is unafraid to get fantastical. He weaves stories with melodies and goes wherever the song takes him as opposed to pushing the songs in the direction of radio jingles. It comes together in a free-wheeling style that sounds like you’ve stumbled into a Turnpike soundcheck or jam session. Yet, it’s his Nix’s vocals that tie it all together. He isn’t a strong vocalist, but he’s an able and emotive one. He wrote these songs and he performs them with all the conviction he can muster.
The title track resounds with a “Before the Devil Knows We’re Dead” energy. “Sweet Delta Rose” even reminds of some of Flatland Cavalry’s best work. “Shelby ’65” has a Jerry Reed vibe that bleeds with Ryan Engelman’s tele and will definitely have you mashing the gas pedal in your truck as if you’re driving a Shelby ’65 yourself. There are elements of country, bluegrass, folk, Texas/Red Dirt, Americana and string bands. The musicianship is superb, the lyrics are smart and the melodies catchy.
Nix has done something truly remarkable. He’s stepped out of the shadows from one of the biggest bands to ever rise from the Red Dirt scene and delivered a winner. He shut out the noise and focused on the craft, and in doing so dropped one of the best albums of 2020. If you’re a fan of Turnpike, you will dig this. And even if you’d never heard one note of theirs, you’d dig it just as much because it is good enough on its own merits.