Chris Stamey: The Great Escape [Album Review]

Chris Stamey
The Great Escape
Car/Schoolkids Records [2023]

If your cultural antenna are tuned toward the rise of alternative music in the southeast late 70’s & early 80’s, from places like Athens, GA and Chapel Hill, NC, then no doubt the name Chris Stamey may register in your memory even if you can’t quite place the what and where. Early on, Stamey had contact with producers Mitch Easter (Let’s Active) and Don Dixon, who produced early R.E.M. albums, before traveling to NYC to play with Alex Chilton (Big Star) for a bit, prior to forming the dB’s with fellow NC musician Peter Holsapple. The dB’s made a brief but influential splash, and Holsapple went on to provide live concert support for R.E.M. and Hootie & the Blowfish, while contributing to he collaborative Continental Drifters. Stamey continued making solo albums, and produced bands like Pylon and Yo La Tengo, and playing a supportive role live with folk like Bob Mould and Matthew Sweet. In 2022, Stamey made rock history news, participating in an all-star band with Jody Stephens, the last living member of Big Star, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the #1 Record, for several shows alongside Mike Mills (R.E.M.), Pat Sansone (Wilco), and Jon Auer (The Posies).” Then earlier this year, Stamey was the noted producer of The Salt Collective’s star-studded collaborative album, Life, with appearances by Sweet, Richard Lloyd (Television), Julianna Hatfield, Susan Cowsell, Matthew Caws (Nada Surf), and a reunion with members of the dB’s.

With 8 solo albums to his credit, and more producer credits than there’s room to mention, The Great Escape feels like a tip of the hat to the early influences that sparked Stamey’s musical career: the Laurel Canyon LA sound that mixed rock & country with an emphasis on vocal harmonies in bands like The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and The Buffalo Springfield, which opened the door for artists like CSN, Neil Young, and The Eagles. To deliver this sound effectively, Stamey relies on the input of pedal steel guitarist Eric Heywood (Son Volt, Joe Henry), who he met working with Alejandro Escovedo back in 2017, but I’ve seen him out playing most recently with Over the Rhine. Stamey plays many of the guitar leads himself, supported additionally by Allyn Love on lap steel and dobro, but the other distinctive factor in these songs reminiscent of the mid’s 60’s and early 70’s are the warm bed of vocal harmonies from Holsapple, Caitlin Cary, Brett Harris, Matt McMichaels, and Dave Wilson.

Stamey puts his strongest foot forward on the opening tracks, starting off with the album’s title track, a song about hitting the road, heading out on the “blue highway,” his catchy melody knocked up a notch by Heywood’s steel slide mixed with standard guitar licks, followed by the smart, melodic love song, “Realize.” Stamey follows that with the album’s only cover, “She Might Look My Way,” a song he played when supporting Alex Chilton in 1977, the Big Star singer gone solo, who’d written it with Tommy Hoehn, it’s also the one song on the album produced by Terry Manning back at Ardent Studio in Memphis. This Big Star rarety displays the power pop rocker’s influence on Stamey’s work with the dB’s as well as the jangly guitar rock of artists like Tom Petty, The Jayhawks, and countless others.

Having established his musical bona fides, Stamey stretches out on the remainder of The Great Escape, displaying his songwriter chops, telegraphing his own story as well as a clever sense of humor. “Here’s How We Start Again” is pure country corn, with Stamey playing it straight while exposing the co-dependent underbelly of some traditional love songs, while “I Will Try” heads straight into that Laurel Canyon sound with the jangly guitars and vocal harmonies for miles. “Dear Friend” is a folk song of encouragement, just swimming in pedal steel guitar, and sing-songy harmonies that are almost too sweet.

Things pick back up with the travelling narrative of the acoustic folk/rock of “Greensboro Days,” that feels like something from the early 70’s with harmonies that hint at John Phillips’ work with the Mamas & The Papas, as Stamey sings of leaving NC at the end of the summer, with lovely acoustic guitar and violin soloing. “Back in New York” gets a bit of brass flavoring on the romantic song of returning to the Big Apple, with lyrical nods to “David Van Roth,” and “Jack Kerouac,” who Stamey remembers said he “had to lose himself to be set free.” There also is a bonus electric version of this track included on the album.

The dreamy reverie of “Sweetheart of the Video,” an obvious nod to The Byrds’ “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” describes a fantasy attraction to the attractive girl in a rock video suggests a connection that eludes possibility. “The Catherine’s Wheel,” divided into a slow section at the beginning and end, and the faster middle, while exploring the tension of being “shackled” by love, and the way that same emotion sets us free. And idea that Stamey explores further in the album proper’s final track, “(A Prisoner of This) Hopeless Love,” where the sad violin solo seeks to express the bleak existence like an old English love sonnet of unrequited desire. While that sorrowful ending closes out the album, Stamey has included a second playful bonus track, a playful song that describes a brief phone conversation that Stamey had with the great music orchestrater Van Dyke Parks, “The One and Only,” which features Stamey’s own arrangement in the actual absence of Parks’ himself—it’s a funny brush with the more famous star who “told me things that I can’t repeat/but if I did you’d fall right out of your seat.”

Chris Stamey continues to deliver the goods, smart songwriting, crisp production values, and a solid reminder that it’s never a bad thing to look back with fondness on the musical antecedents that continue to influence new music makers today. The Great Escape may be a celebration of music from 50 years ago, but it sounds just as good in the current moment.

“The Great Escape” / “Realize” / “Greensboro Days”

The dB’s / CSN&Y / The Byrds

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Brian Q. Newcomb

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