With his declaration that “I’m still livin’ the dream/Still out here fightin’ the good fight,” Stewart Eastham emphasizes the underlying shred of grace present in the compositions on his great new record The Man I Once Was. For his first solo album since the split of his band Day Of The Outlaw, the California-reared, Nashville-based singer-songwriter sketches unflinching portraits of humanity. Whether fondly remembering a deceased friend (and former fling) in the aforementioned “Crazy Old World” or detailing the emotional comeuppance of a traumatized Vietnam veteran who morphs into an abusive alcoholic and eventual murderer in the title track, Eastham casts an unsparing eye on sin and earthly salvation.
There are no angels or devils in Eastham’s own crazy world, although there are plenty of givers, users, takers, and heart-breakers. While The Man I Once Was is described as record that’s “deeply rooted in [Eastham’s] own first-hand experience,” it should not have any problem connecting on a more universal level. At its core Eastham’s album is full of honest, striking storytelling that never goes out of style.
While he aligns his work with the Americana world, several songs off Eastham’s new record may find residence in the music collections of those who adore mainstream country traditionalists. The steel-laden shuffle “Lights of Tennessee” could pass for a George Strait cut while tender ode “My Favorite Thing” wouldn’t feel out of place on an Alan Jackson album. Unsurprisingly, the legends revered by Strait and Jackson (Hank Williams Sr., Lefty Frizzell, etc.) are also among Eastham’s own influences, further displaying the young artist’s affinity for timeless music. Stylistically, Eastham shares commonalities with Jamey Johnson and Chris Stapleton, although he also enthusiastically cranks up the guitars on numbers like the funk-infused “Crawl Up In Your Bottle.” Producer Burke Ericson surrounds Eastham’s lyrics with tasteful arrangements that feel both grand and intimate while Eastham’s gruff, soulful voice, frequently supported by knock-em-flat harmony vocals, rings with conviction and character.
Eastham is often at his best when he portrays the complexities of tense situations. The lonely narrator in “Someone New” is unintentionally callous. Still reeling from a break-up, the man reduces his new lady friend to simply “someone new.” Regarded as little more than a body to warm his bed, she is stripped of any personal attributes and compared in an unflattering manner to his past love. While the narrator finds some satisfaction in the fact that “every day that goes by/You drift a little further from my mind,” the song never sugar coats the all-too-human tactic of turning to another for physical comfort before one is emotionally healed. Gentle acoustic guitar and melancholy violin further highlight the narrator’s discomfort, lending the song a sad beauty. Ultimately. what makes “Someone New” so effective is that Eastham isn’t interested in portraying his narrator simply as a sympathetic character; he’s allowed to be flawed.
Unresolved feelings don’t always lead to longing. During the quietly affecting story song “Idyllwild, CA” the narrator comes to the firm realization that he is ultimately better off without relationship that’s “broken in a way [he] could not mend.” His attempt to salvage a love that he’s long since outgrown by escaping with his former significant other to a scenic mountain town results in an unexpected climax with the painful confession that he misses Idyllwild “so much more than the goddamn girl who broke [his] heart in two.” In an album bursting with strong songwriting, “Idyllwild” is an understated gem.
While The Man I Once Was may draw from Eastham’s own experiences, the extensive appeal of his uncompromising storytelling should take him far. Even though he’s still “fightin’ the good fight” for more recognition, audiences have only seen a peek of his potential. As he continues to grow as an artist, fans can look forward to learning more about the man Eastham has yet to become.