John Baumann is a songwriter with a strong voice and clear conscience that has enabled him to cut through to the hearty details of life that impact us all. His releases have all been critically acclaimed and he continues to grow his audience. He writes songs that make you think and move you in some way. His music is unique, special and different in all the best ways. Baumann’s latest release, Proving Grounds, finds him making good on the positive claims of his previous efforts.
The opening salvo of “Here I Come” is as direct and no b.s. description of a touring songwriter in Texas as has ever been committed to tape.
I started writing songs that sucked on the surface and cliche
I must’ve wrote 200 bad ones before a good one came my way
Now I’m damn near almost 30 with this trailer to load
My name is misspelled on the marquee, 500 miles down the road
My skin is so much thicker now that I’ve been in this shit
Too soon for accolades and it’s too late to quit
It doesn’t get much more real than that. Whereas others in his lane try to coast on bravado, bullshit and hype, Baumann is keeping it as real as it gets. This is the type of gritty honesty we’re all craving and seeking in our music. It’s the type of insight previously provided by the likes of Hayes Carll and Guy Clark.
His honesty separates and elevates him from the pack of younger artists trying to reach that next level in this scene. He again echoes Carll on “Heavy Head”…a hungover ode to the glow of leftover good intentions. There’s a hint of madness, sarcasm and wisdom strewn alongside the empty aluminum and full ashtrays. The Clark harkening continues on “Love #1” and not just in title emulation. The phrasing and vibe is replete with that Clark gift of less is more. Baumann treads ground that would prove hackneyed in other hands, but come across as straightforward platitudes of affection here.
The real world observational lyrics don’t stop there. “Lonely In Bars” takes another scenario that is tried and true country songwriter fodder and gives it a fresh turn. The characters in the song aren’t just looking for a right-swipe or hook-up…they’re in the long game and seeking to never be lonely in a bar again. The Isbell-esque “Old Stone Church” is a heart-wrenching tale that provides a steely eyed view of organized religion and small town hypocrisy…and how we all seek both when we need it most. Personally, I’ve lived part of that song and it ripped my heart out on first listen and each successive listen hasn’t been much easier. I suspect there will be many people that find that same connection.
There’s fun to be had here too…”The Trouble With Drinking” and “When Ophelia Comes To Town” provide a fun counterpoint to the heady and heartfelt emotional pull of the other songs. These songs aren’t slouches, just a different slice of this crazy life we all live.
On an album full of eleven strong tracks, it is the last that perhaps packs the most melancholy punch. “Pontiacs” is a poetic, coming of age tale that is a folksy cousin to Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” and very much in line with Mike McClure’s “World Go Round”. Baumann captures the lifelong chase of adolescence by those who have long left its grasp. The allure of simple times is stronger than the green grass we all saw as teenagers. We didn’t know how good we had it and Baumann captures that essence.
The production leaves a little to be desired at points, but I think that was Baumann’s intention. It’s sparse and folksy like the Flatlander idols he sings of in the opening track. Although, a few of the tracks could stand a little punchier production, it all fits the overall vibe. Baumann’s voice isn’t a multi-range masterpiece either, but these songs are his and his emotive delivery gives them all the weight and theatrics they require.
There hasn’t been a record that captures life in such a dynamic sense in this scene since McClure’s 12 Pieces. Whereas that record found a mid 30’s husband/father tackling life, Proving Grounds, finds Baumann on the edge of that next step of life. This is a man staring 30 in the eye with a solid plan, a long memory and a pen. Turning those thoughts into songs is no small task and Baumann has found a way to weave his own personal story in such a way that the public at large will recognize both John Baumann and themselves in these songs. I dropped a lot of heavy A-list comparisons in this review and it’s deserved. That’s how strong these songs are. As solid and standout of a songwriting record as we’ve had in quite some time. This is the real deal.