“If we’d ever start listening to reason, we’d have no reason to go,” local songwriter Corey Nolen sings on “Find a Way,” the first track on his new alt-country record Drive Down South. “If we’d ever start moving forward, we’d be more lost than we were before.” These are straightforward lines about ambivalent feelings – about heartbreak, doubt, and no easy routes to redemption or happiness – and they place Drive Down South securely in an Alabamian songwriting lineage dating back to Hank Sr.
Nolen first started playing music professionally after graduating from Birmingham-Southern College in the mid-’90s. The pressure of trying to succeed as a songwriter in the Birmingham scene of the time proved too much for him, and he settled down into an uncomfortable routine of working odd jobs like selling ID badges – one year of seven-days-a-week work netted Nolen $5,000 – and delivering sheetrock. Regarding the latter, Nolen echoed Monty Python’s Life of Brian, saying, “It wasn’t so bad. At least I got to be outside.
“That was a time in my life where I felt like I had let go of the thing I loved, and that I didn’t really have a clear direction,” Nolen added. “[Photography] kind of pulled me out of despair and gave me some purpose in my life.” Nolen’s career in photography blossomed into a self-sustaining business, one that played to the strengths he had already established as a songwriter.
“I’m a storyteller,” Nolen said. “I like to communicate, whether that’s in words or in pictures. It kind of comes back to the fact that I like to hear people’s stories and that I like to share those in some way.”
With some encouragement from fellow musicians around Birmingham, Nolen eventually started writing songs again, and the long layoff isn’t apparent in the polished finished product of Drive Down South. The first three songs on the record show a remarkable amount of genre versatility from a debut effort, going from Ryan Adams-style alt-country (“Find A Way”) to an old-fashioned country lament (“Haunt Me”) to a more rocking, cathartic style (“I Thought That I Loved You”).
That middle song, “Haunt Me,” is one of the highlights of the album, drawing from Nolen’s localized experiences in a way that still feels universal, even poetic. The heartbroken narrator is so desperate for his old flame that he’d rather have the failed relationship live on as a revenant than move on: “So why won’t you haunt me like a ghost?” Nolen sings. “Be the sounds that I don’t know, see your face on the pane of my window? And I want you to move my things around, so that when I hear that door slamming, I’ll know that you’ve been here all along – and I am not alone.”
The heartfelt lyricism makes appearances throughout, as Nolen balances witty flourishes with a kind of blue collar directness. That balancing act is at least in part derived from Nolen’s awareness of the need for commercial viability after struggling in his first go-round as a musician, and it comes as no surprise that a trip to Nashville helped to inspire the record. On the one hand, the pop sensibility that occasionally crops up makes for the album’s weakest moment (the honky-tonk “Learning from Losing”), but on the other it makes the record immediately accessible.
Another key factor in the record’s instant appeal is its first-rate production quality. Nolen’s supporting cast is excellent on Drive Down South, but Birmingham-raised producer Brian T. Murphy’s talent for turning the instrumentation of classic country into such an immersive, atmospheric sound – most notably Matt Knapp’s evocative pedal steel guitar – makes him stand out as the album’s secret weapon.
The instrumentation on the record is traditional – Act of Congress member Adam Wright contributes beautiful mandolin on the two tracks that close out the album, for instance – but Nolen and company walk the line between traditional and “alt” country throughout.
“Traditional country is now alt-country,” Nolen says of the distinction. “But it seems like what is considered modern country hijacked the term. Bands like Whiskeytown, Son Volt, Wilco, they sort of started to carry this label of alt-country. And they made it possible for people like me to say, ‘Oh, that’s what I like. I like Ryan Adams, I like his aesthetic.’ … I don’t see it as much different than what I loved in the ‘80s.”
That sense of going back to basics wouldn’t count for much, though, if Nolen couldn’t deliver emotionally resonant songs. “The majority of the songs are about me,” Nolen said. “They’re very personal. Everything might be first-person, even if they’re not my story. And the majority of those things are things that I went through. The hard thing is seeing something happen in somebody else’s life and making something out of that.”
On songs like the slow redemption tale “What I Had Coming,” Nolen serves in a role akin to Jimmy Webb’s with “Wichita Lineman,” finding striking stories of love and tweaking the details for the sake of the song. “A guy can tell me his story, but I’ve got to take it and make it my own in a way so that the listener can feel it, so that I can communicate that in an authentic way,” Nolen said.
Nolen still has room to grow as a songwriter, but in the successes of Drive Down South – professionalism, emotional maturity and a lot of heart – he’s given himself a very exciting foundation to build on.
For more information on Corey Nolen, visit coreynolenmusic.com.