This album gets off to an excellent start with “Second Wind.” The opening lines speak strongly to those of us who are of a certain age: “Well, half my beard has turned to grey/Oh, half my years have flown away.” A depressing thought, certainly, but immediately after that, he offers this positive and optimistic outlook: “But I don’t look back on where I’ve been/I’m chasing down my second wind.” And the song sounds strong and bright enough that I believe that it’s possible for all of us. Perhaps it is right around the corner. If we are still above ground, it’s not too late. “I got a bunch of stuff on my bucket list/And an open road that I can’t resist.” Oh yes, that sounds so appealing. This song features mandolin, banjo and accordion, which add to its cheerful and optimistic sound. That’s Mark Schrock on mandolin and Ian Gorman on banjo. At the end of this track, Andy Baker reaches out and addresses us directly: “So when your hair starts turning grey/Well, don’t think your life has flown away/But the best of days come ‘round again/Oh once you catch that second wind.” That’s followed by “Skywriter,” a song told from the perspective of a skywriter. At the beginning of this song, a man runs up to him and asks, “Can you write I’m sorry/So big that she’ll believe/And can you do it all before the six o’clock train leaves?” Yes, it is a love song about a desperate act. And when listening, you can’t help but hope it works. These things can work in songs, in films, in books, when in real life they probably wouldn’t. Is it any wonder that we’re turning to music even more these days? With reality in a horrible downward spiral, no one can blame us for wishing to live within art.
I was feeling down the first time I listened to this album, and “Sixteen” basically wrecked me. This song is about a teenager who is hoping to just make it to her next birthday. “Mom cries about the things that I’ll be missing/Dad cries about the daughter he can’t save/And they tell me when it’s time/Baby, run into the light/Oh, but what if all I want to do is stay?” God, life is so bloody cruel, though that is not the message of this song. There is actually something incredibly positive about this song. “And thank my lucky stars/That I have come so far/Celebrate the gift of another day.” Something all of us could stand to keep in mind, eh? “Next Right Thing” has a strong country sound. Andy Baker is able to create such vivid characters in his songs, this song being just one good example. “I Know” is a beautiful song about dealing with past mistakes and current troubles. “And you said, baby if you can’t let them go/The weight of this regret will crush your soul.” The response, “I know, I know, I know, I know, I know,” has a different delivery, a lighter sound, which is interesting. At one point he sings, “I know I’ve got a lot of work to do.” Indeed, most of us do. These days it’s hard to keep from letting anger overtake us. Again, there is the sense here that it can be done, that we can work through our troubles and improve our outlook, improve ourselves. And I certainly appreciate that.
“Tsunami” is a song about death and grief. “I did not tell you that I loved you/I did not kiss your lips goodbye/I thought that you’d be home for dinner/You weren’t supposed to leave this life.” The song suddenly builds in power as the person lashes out, singing, “Last night I ran headlong into the ocean/And begged that cold dark water, please just swallow me.” It is a forceful and moving moment, one of many on this excellent album. “Tsunami” is followed by “Crossroads,” which has a brighter sound. “Now here I stand, staring at a crossroads/Wondering what my next step’s going to be.” Are there portents? Are there signs? Can we be guided? He isn’t certain, saying “The only thing I know for sure is I won’t be coming back.” Then in “Running After You” he sings “And we are, just laughing in this moment/And that’s why I keep running after you.” Yes, it’s a love song, and one that is so sweet, so true. It ends with the lines, “If you go first, I’ll hold onto this memory/Of you standing there, laughing like you do/Waiting at the end of this long dirt road/For me to come running after you/For me to come running after you.” How can anyone remain unaffected by such moving lyrics?
Andy Baker then delivers a more rocking, and less serious number, “Fixer Upper Blues.” This one features some good work by Peter “Madcat” Ruth on harmonica, plus some nice work by Mike Lynch on organ. That’s followed by “Fall To Pieces,” a beautiful song, its first verse taking place after the end of a relationship. “Held it in for the lawyers, held it in for the kids/Held it in so that bastard would never get to see the damage that he did/But now this house is dark and empty/And this old couch won’t tell a soul/So you should fall to pieces/Go on and fall apart.” He tells us, “it’s good to let it go.” Don’t you sometimes just want to fall apart? In the second verse, there is bad news from the doctors. Is it a different character with different troubles? Hell, I hope so. If it’s the same person, that is just too much, too much for one person to handle. This song is like a comforting hand on our shoulder, something we could all use. Mia Rose provides some nice backing vocals. “Fall To Pieces” is followed by “Love & Gravity,” a sweet song. Check out these lyrics: “A trace of what we used to be/But that’s the deal with time and space/The key is laughter and a little grace/For though our bodies turn to dust/What can’t be lost in each of us/Is love and gravity.” The album concludes with its title track, “North Country Sky.” This one too deals with death, and again in a positive way, in lines like “But when I have come to the end of my days, lay me down in the new fallen snow/Of the north country sky.” Is this album preparing us for the end? It feels that way at times, doesn’t it? And in doing so, it is helping us, perhaps, live a little better.
CD Track List
- Second Wind
- Next Right Thing
- I Know
- Running After You
- Fixer Upper Blues
- Fall To Pieces
- Love & Gravity
- North Country Sky
North Country Sky was released on June 10, 2020.