On Dylan LeBlanc’s debut album, Paupers Field, a lost world is brought to life – both in the carefully sculpted songs and rich well of country soul from which those songs emerge.
Although the Golden era of Alabama’s fabled Muscle Shoals sound had passed by the time Dylan was born in 1990, his ancestral roots and family background connected him to one of the most significant sources in the rich tapestry of American music. His father’s position as a Muscle Shoals session player and songwriter meant that early in life Dylan was privy to the sights and sounds of an unvarnished, vanishing epoch and such legends as Spooner Oldham.
“I grew up around a lot of the session players. When I was 11 or 12 I would watch and ask a lot of questions, so for me it was like going to music college,” is how the tall, gentle voiced, lank haired Shreveport, Louisiana native remembers it. “It seemed like a much simpler world – it was romantic to me the way everyone sat in a circle and took it from the top, they just played and hit the record button. That’s the path I followed when I made this album.” This music is in the blood.
“For me music is about getting together with a group of people who feel like family – you create a bond, feeding off each other. Just a look or a hand gesture and they know what you are talking about.” Dylan’s progress was natural, organic – learning the ropes working as a sideman, helped define his own world view and artistry through his teens. A friend of such celebrated local outfits as Drive By Truckers, LeBlanc piggybacked on no-one. Paupers Field is a singular record from a singular performer.
“My first hand influences are all interesting but I’ve always been a loner when it comes to music. I had the opportunity to and did my own thing and whoever wanted to join in was welcome to. I started picking on my 7th birthday; my dad bought me a guitar. I started writing when I was 11 or 12”.
Although he dismisses his early songs as “not very good” Dylan’s learning served him well. The songs on this debut are beautifully nurtured, gently astonishing, stop you in your tracks reveries – gilded with strings, smokey organ lines, keening pedal steel. Despite his age, Dylan’s worn yearning voice already has the mark of aged experience. Neither the feel nor sound of the album, nor the haunted ghost summoning songs he has written, can be faked. ”If Time Was Wasting” for instance, seems to be wrenched from the heart of ever present currents in Deep South life – where the pull of the past is unavoidable. “Admittedly I was drinking a good bit myself, and when I wrote the song I was thinking about an arrogant ignorant man and the woman he was with. It has a lot to do with the culture round here. I pictured a man walking into a room where he lives with an angry wife.”
Heritage in the present springs up everywhere on Paupers Field. Ghosts and demons emerge from the mist in compositions featuring archetypal characters such as “Emma Hartley” and “The Outlaw Billy John”. Like much great art, Dylan’s work is often rooted in pain and anxiety. “Eccentricity runs in my family and all the men seem to die very young and all the women live to be very old.”
His great great Grandfather shot a notorious local bandit, and was in turn slain in an ambush. This killing took place in Palestine, Texas in the early 1900s, a time and place which fits right in with the album’s sepia mood, redolent of The Band’s classic second album. “There were concerns when I was growing up how things might turn out,” says Dylan carefully. “I wrote music because it made me feel better. I used to get these feelings that would come over me so strong; I felt I was sinking into darkness, like staring out of a large hole in the ground. It scared me and I struggled daily trying to be content in life. In a lot of ways I still do.” His songs – ominously dark yet tenderly appraising emotions to find light and balm – don’t just open up a world and his personal feelings and experience, they provide their creator with a valuable lifeline. “It helps me, I’d be a lot darker if I didn’t write, and it’s almost like playing God writing a song.”
It’s a telling comment from the usually modest and soft spoken LeBlanc. He is not the sort of performer to shout about his arrival or proclaim his talent from the rooftops. Nonetheless the seamlessly organic and self produced Paupers Field presents a fully formed total artist; this record speaks for itself. LeBlanc’s is a voice from the present connected to the past, one sure to outlast passing trends and fads. Soul deep.
“Its funny I never thought anyone would take an interest in what I do so I had the freedom to sound natural with folks I know and love and trust. Everything was basically recorded live, so when we play it live it’s about trying to give people a little of that same feeling. We mean what we say and do what we feel. I think we did that very well on this record.”
Ain’t that the truth.