Look into the dull eyes of Jenny, the waitress in the brooding composition “Midland,” and you might recognize yourself. The title track of Americana singer-songwriter Sean McConnell’s latest album chronicles her mundane existence in a place where there’s “no one to serve, just time to kill.” If boredom doesn’t slay her, cigarettes just might. Despite being anchored to a less than idyllic life, she remains unbowed. A weaker woman might crumble beneath the weight of her disappointment; Jenny’s head isn’t exactly held high, but it’s turned toward the horizon.
Midland is not simply a geographic location – a barely visible speck in a vast world – but a state of mind. Inevitably, people come to emotional crossroads in their lives, caught between lust and love, pain and pride, anxiety and acceptance. Whether you’re an inhabitant of a bustling metropolis or a one-light town, the seemingly forgotten dreamer embodied by Jenny lives in all of us. The question is whether we manage to make it out of turbulent times with our hearts and minds intact. In Jenny’s case, there is no clear resolution, but a strange comfort can be found in the way that she presses on in the midst of her own desolation. Part cautionary tale and part stark portrait of reality, “Midland” necessarily sets the stage for listeners to fully appreciate the highly-charged songs that follow it.
McConnell knows something about standing at life’s crossroads. His music meets at the intersection between country and rock (with a generous helping of soul thrown in for good measure). He’s old enough to fondly recall the past, but young enough to embrace new challenges. He’s a Nashville resident who is also a favorite in the Texas music scene.
A prolific songwriter who’s penned songs recorded by Wade Bowen, the Randy Rogers Band, Tim McGraw, and Rascal Flatts among many others, McConnell is a powerful artist in his own right. His lyrics can be blunt, humorous, or poetic, but most important is his consistent sincerity. He injects each song with honesty and surrounds himself with people who respect and enhance his vision.
Although people flit in and out of Jenny’s life, McConnell assembles a strong team to assist him on Midland. Friends like Bowen (who harmonizes on the title track), Lori McKenna, and co-writer Jason Saenz lend their voices to the project. A first-rate band gathers around McConnell to breathe life into his songs, including producer Brian Pruitt, Alison Prestwood, Dan Dugmore, Tony Harrell, Jedd Hughes, and Billy Justineau. Whether bringing forth the ominous tones of “Lord It’s Gonna Rain” or emphasizing the sweet nostalgia of “Suppertime,” Pruitt highlights each musician’s skill while still maintaining a cohesive sound.
Midland is full of stirring compositions. Not coincidentally, the title track is followed by “Save Our Soul,” an insistent, foot-stomping call for a musical reawakening. Fans of the ABC soap opera Nashville may recognize the torrid single “Kiss.” However, it’s a trio of softer numbers that showcase McConnell at his best.
Backed by the sweet trill of McKenna and plenty of weeping pedal steel, “Suppertime” recalls a time when the most important thing in an adolescent’s life was coming together with his family. Reflecting on long-gone innocence, McConnell expresses appreciation for less hectic times: “Can’t you just hear it like a long lost song/Makes me want to sing along/And hold on to every moment till it’s gone.”
Heart-tugging ballad “I Didn’t Want To Love You Anyway” is a hit waiting to happen. McConnell’s delivery gives the impression that each confession is being ripped from his throat as he lays himself bare before the woman who rejects him. “You don’t even cross my mind…more than a hundred times a day,” he reluctantly acknowledges, a number that increases throughout the length of the song. In a blistering burst of defiance he dismisses any overtures of comfort from his beloved: “I don’t need your sympathy/Girl, don’t act like you ruined me/And don’t you dare speak my name when you pray,” he snarls. Ultimately, he can’t even fool himself with stubborn denials.
The album’s closer “Old Brown Shoes” is a sparse, candid tribute to the loss of a loved one. Searching for answers and faith, McConnell sifts through his relative’s personal effects, concluding that until the men can meet face to face again he’ll “stumble around in [his] old brown shoes.” The song speaks reverently of a man well-loved and a life well-lived. At this particular emotional crossroad, McConnell emerges with peace in his heart. Much like his aforementioned protagonist Jenny, he simply turns his head to the sky and waits. After all, time moves slow in Midland.