Ken Lehnig is a writer, poet, artist, and singer/songwriter, who has been involved with the Burning Sage Band, including on 2013’s Keep the Sun From Going Down. He plays all manner of folk and country styles, and has released a new solo album, The American Music Show. The new disc has 15 original tracks and finds Lehnig as a sort of folk music chameleon, with a cadre of players behind him playing a collection of tunes that at times recalls other roots icons.
Lehnig sings lead vocal (with two duets), backing vocals, playing guitars, banjo, mandolin, and keys. He also produced the project, which seems to go for a sound that avoids slick gloss in favor of reverb-heavy vocals and studio noise – and it actually seems to fit his music quite well. His voice often shifts identities, as the first few tracks are almost a Bob Dylan tribute: “Waiting on a Train” sounds like an outtake from New Morning that got left off that album and “Stronger Anyway,” while folkier, still has Bobby D inflection on every syllable, though with a strong arrangement and decent hook. “Ragman” feels more like Lehnig’s own voice, singing about “Bad men coming for me” in gold rush times, he’s his own worst enemy; it’s catchy and tells a story-like Dylan’s late-’60s tunes.
“Used to Be” works as a keyboard ballad with string effects and Lehnig’s vocal is just right, as he takes the measure of his life entering its sunset phase. A dose of jazz gives “Angela Glows” a boost: it has a beat unlike anything before it, and diminished chords that change things up, his offbeat vocal is about how this mysterious woman is the love of his life. Mark Jackson sings a duet with Lehnig on “Remember That Song,” and Lehnig the chameleon is back, and sounding just like Willie Nelson. “Fall into Whiskey” is a classic theme revisited with a catchy arrangement, and Lehnig blends folk and country, finger-picking and pedal steel to capture the right emotional tone of a man resolved to the loss of his soul to the bottle, “My life is a ruin, so much I would undo.”
“Catch a Fish” is a playful country/ bluegrass fiddle tune, another change of pace that offers a shot of humor and hand clapping in the midst of a string of slow ballads. “Something in the Game” follows, a duet with Tara Alvarado, and though this isn’t really a bad song, it lacks much momentum and drags. Part of the difficulty is no doubt stacking 15 tracks that are mostly slow to mid-tempo ballads for 56 minutes, with not much else to break it up. One of the most effective folk songs here is the closer, “Summer’s Wing,” which is mostly just Lehnig, a guitar, and a haunting melody, mostly adapted from the old English lullaby “I Gave My Love a Cherry;” it closes out with a chorus of backing vocals that punctuate both the song and the album.
Ken Lehnig’s American Music Show offers a variety of folk ballads, many of them memorable.