Travel is inspiring. Everyone from Jack Kerouac to Saint Paul will tell you so. For Melbourne country musician Ben Mastwyk, travelling through the south of the USA inspired him to record and release his first solo album, Mornin, Evenin. Mastwyk is a familiar figure in the Melbourne country scene, as part of Jemma & The Clifton Hillbillies, the Sweet By & By, and collaborator with The Shotgun Wedding.
In 2013, Mastwyk started the transition from side- to centre-stage by recording Mornin at Temper Trap studios. All the songs on the album were written on the move. Many were written in the USA – littered with place names and Americana like badges of honour – while others were written rambling around Melbourne’s Merri Creek trail.
Mornin is eleven songs of straight-up country from the Hank Williams school via Townes van Zandt and Willie Nelson, and Mastwyk’s voice has a rich imperfection reminiscent of Gram Parsons. brought gently to life by local country royalty like Ben Franz (pedal steel), Sean McMahon (electric guitar), and singer from The Shotgun Wedding (Brooke Russell, Loni Thompson, Amarina Waters, and Ayleen O’Hanlon), and a whole bunch of others.
The songs cover all the country staples. There’s lost love, strained relationships, Chevrolets and Fords, a dive bar, a cheap motel, and a swimming pool shaped like a guitar. This isn’t a bad thing at all, particularly since Mastwyk is a skilled lyricist, and finds elegant ways to express timeless themes.
On ‘The Song’ heartbreak is explored through the idea of a song written by a former lover that you now can’t sing. It is, Mastwyk sings, “as if the song itself won’t even let me in.”
Another highlight is single ‘Sing Her Back Home’, a lazy 3am waltz with a melody that occasionally tries to rise but always falls back down to an unnerving, almost sinister low note. Again, the power of song is acknowledged, as Mastwyk asks a lover estranged from a troubled man “Will you let him sing you back home, let him sing ‘til you cry?”
The album isn’t all heartbreak, although it never quite lets itself get truly rollicking. ‘Down Along the Tracks’ could definitely get a civilised barn dance cookin’ with its sing-a-long chorus and musical inventory of the junk and treasure of a railroad track where its protagonist “threw that diamond ring”.
‘I Found Jesus’ feels like an instant classic. An irreverent country hymn about a decorative Jesus pinned to a crucifix by some tiny tacks. The refrain “I thought just for a moment about the grace of God and all, and the miracle of finding him though he was very small” is a beautiful little wink from new wave country to its pious roots.
‘Isn’t it Time’ is by far the most emotionally raw song on the album, the pleas of someone in reaching out to a friend who needs to break a bad cycle – drugs, alcohol, or some other vice. The song walks a fine line between tenderness and brutality as it delivers its home truths and bats away excuses – “How can she help when you won’t help yourself?” – all washed over in Franz’s hazy pedal steel and Hugh Stuckey’s low, mournful fiddle work. The song is packed with great lines like “You’re tempting death though you’re so scared of dying, you let him in though you’re shaking and crying”, and the kick-in-the-guts “You’re praying to god but you’re living in hell; I can’t even tell why I bother at all.”
This is a solid album, and a treat for those craving some real old-time country sounds. It’s also a joy to hear so many great Melbourne musicians coming together on one record.