Brookhaven, MS, Indie Folk singer/songwriter delivers passionate, personal debut.
(Original version published on Southern Senses 03/24/16)*
Over the last couple of years, singer/songwriter Tony Norton has become something of a staple in the Southwest Mississippi music scene, performing regularly at singer/songwriter events and festivals around the area and hosting Brookhaven, MS’s premier weekly event: the Magnolia Blues BBQ Company Open Mic Night. It is, therefore, no surprise that his debut effort, Songs from an Unfinished House, has been long-anticipated and well-received by fans. But how does the record hold up under scrutiny?
First and foremost, Tony Norton is a storyteller—one of the best the region has to offer—and subsequently, the release is, first and foremost, an exemplary effort of his craft. The record boasts blends of country, rock, and blues (that perfect storm of Southern music) but leans predominantly folk, a style to which Norton’s vocal and acoustic guitar stylings, as well as his musical sensibilities, are perfectly suited.
The production is overall sparse and basic with no frills, complimenting the from-the-heart-and-gut songwriting style Norton employs throughout the effort—exactly the feel I believe Norton is trying to achieve.
01. “Back from Memphis”
Kicking off with an old west bar-style piano from regional keys master Marvin Curtis, the album opener, “Back from Memphis,” is a delightfully lumbering tune with a melancholy feel, featuring a tale of a particularly interesting night involving the titular city. “If I don’t make it back from Memphis / I fell in the bottle / Walked myself right down to the river / Lord, I sank to the bottom,” goes the refrain—the first example of Norton’s honest, down-to-earth songwriting style which permeates the album.
02. “Kings of Lincoln County”
Probably the best song on the record (and one that has become quite popular in Norton’s home town), “Kings of Lincoln County” speaks of Norton’s experiences as a youth in his home county in Southwest Mississippi and is set atop a perfect blend of easy-feeling country, folk, and bluegrass. The song reflects on the adventurous times of youth and all the fun, romance, danger, and heartache that comes with them. Norton’s ability to tap into relatable events in the life of the every man and turn them into poetic rhythms is on full display here, as exemplified in this tune’s chorus:
”Oh we were living each second
Like the next was not in sight
And we knew the best way to live
Was to never die
We were running down our youth
As if it had a bounty
’Cause we were
Oh we were
The Kings of Lincoln County.”
04. “The Shovel”
A slow, stripped ballad of more of that country, folk, and bluegrass blend with beautifully crafted lyrics depicting the plight of the working man in the vein of classic folk, spiritual, and blues tunes. For a modern musical stylistic reference, think some shades of Amos Lee’s work.
05. “Goin’ South”
Though the least belonging track on the record in terms of style, “Goin’ South” is a driving, uptempo, heavily distorted electric guitar-driven affair which offers a welcomed differentiation in the flow and displays Norton’s otherwise hidden 90s alt rock sensibilities.
Another slow, stripped tune, “Sadie” is a painful lament of loss whose tune sounds like something straight out of a folk songbook filled with tunes from rural 19th century America. A mournful violin from musician Jake Patrick compliments the feel and story to perfection.
10. “Gasoline House”
A crowd-pleasing staple at Norton’s live shows, “Gasoline House” is a grooving, straight-up, in-your-face, lyrically biting blues/rock tune about bad love, replete here with gratuitous electric guitar, piano blues riffs, and a phenomenal harmonica turn from guest Scott Albert Johnson. The tune also features the most catchy refrain on the record:
”Don’t drop a match in the Gasoline House”
The record is predominantly a feat of impressive song craftsmanship from one of the best songwriters/lyricists this author has heard in the area. The songwriting, overall style, as well as the one-of-a-kind voice, are reminiscent of any number of classic upper echelon artists in the country/folk range, including Johnny Cash, Roger Miller, John Prine, and Bob Dylan. The earnest music and, more importantly, the heart-felt lyrics are sure to strike a chord with “down-home” Southern folks everywhere.
As a vocalist, Norton is a unique brand. As an artist, he is a perfect executor of his own blend of folk-based country stylings. And as a storyteller, Tony Norton is most certainly a King of Lincoln County.
Album Rating: 4/5
*In 2015, Cole Powell and bandmate/wife Brittany D launched Southern Senses, an online publication dedicated to showcasing the best music and cuisine from the Southern United States. With talented contributors (including Southern rocker J. F. Oakes and restaurateur Christa Reid Neil), the site gained immediate success, attracting the attention of renowned restaurateur Robert St. John and retired NFL tight end Reggie Kelly, among others. Though Powell opted to discontinue the site in 2017, select articles can be found on the Ramblings of a Mad Man blog section of colepowell.net.