Israel Nash may live in the Texas Hill Country, but he’ll always be an Ozarker at heart.
“I was born and raised in small-town Missouri,” Nash reflects. “All the people and the stories and the music that shaped me come from that part of the country, and I could feel it calling back to me on this album.”
Recorded with producer Kevin Ratterman (My Morning Jacket, Ray LaMontagne), Nash’s rousing new collection, Ozarker, is indeed an ode to his roots, but more than that, it’s a meditation on love and family, on the beauty and the pain we pass down through generations, on the ties that bind us through good times and bad. The music here harkens back to the heartland rock that Nash grew up on—Petty, Springsteen, Seger—with larger-than-life guitars and anthemic melodies, and the lyrics are similarly cinematic, painting captivating portraits of everyday men and women doing their best to get by with dignity and self-respect. Some of the characters come directly from Nash’s own family history, others from second-hand accounts, but all share a distinctly Midwestern resilience, their hopes and dreams and triumphs and failures rendered with great tenderness and empathy. It would be easy for Nash to mythologize the place he comes from, to render judgment on the landscape and its people with the benefit of distance and hindsight, but Ozarker instead presents honest, intimate snapshots of its subjects, resisting the urge to romanticize the past and never losing sight of the humanity at the heart of it all.
“I think the reason so much of that classic heartland rock and roll endures is because it touches on themes we all feel so deeply,” says Nash. “Desire, struggle, commitment, escape. As an artist, I’m always aspiring to touch as many people as possible, and that’s what this music has always represented for me.”
The son of a Baptist preacher and an artist, Nash first rose to fame in Europe, where he built a loyal following with a series of critically acclaimed albums that earned him a deal with the renowned Loose Music label. As American audiences began to catch on, Nash left his adopted home of New York City for Dripping Springs, Texas, where he built his own studio on a ranch and began embracing a more spacious, psychedelic sound that landed somewhere between Neil Young and Pink Floyd. Rolling Stone hailed him as a “master of sonic textures,” while MOJO dubbed him a “folk-rock visionary,” and Uncut simply asked, “Who can get enough of music as good as this?”
“Having my own studio for almost a decade now has really helped me grow as an artist,” Nash explains. “The deeper my knowledge got behind the board, the more I realized that I could approach ideas from a lot of different angles, that I didn’t have to restrict myself to any particular genres or sounds.”
Shortly after the death of Tom Petty, though, Nash found himself gravitating back toward the directness and the precision craftsmanship of albums like Full Moon Fever and Damn The Torpedoes. Soon he was mainlining Born In The USA and Night Moves, diving deep into the sounds he grew up on after decades of drifting away from it.
“Listening to those heartland rock albums got me thinking about my own heartland story,” explains Nash. “It got me thinking about all the family lore I heard growing up, all the truth and fiction that gets mixed together when tales get passed down over and over again through the years.”
Inspired to learn more, Nash reached out to his mother, who began filling pages with her recollections of generations of Ozarkers. Rather than write the album at home in his studio, Nash decided to decamp to nearby Wimberley, Texas, where he rented a house on the Blanco River and got to work with just a guitar, an old Casio keyboard, a vintage drum machine, and a four-track tape recorder. The idea was to force himself to stay simple and honest, to avoid falling into routines or getting lost in the gear and to instead write with the urgency and intention the songs demanded.
“I wrote five songs in a week out there, which really set the template for the album,” Nash explains. “A sense of place is really important to these songs, and going somewhere that I could create my own little world was key.”
When it came time to record, Nash spent ten days tracking live at his studio with an all-star band that included My Morning Jacket’s Patrick Hallahan on drums, Bright Light Social Hour’s Curtis Roush on guitar, Floating Action’s Seth Kauffmann on bass, and longtime friend and collaborator Eric Swanson on pedal steel. From there, Nash began making trips to Ratterman’s LA studio to capture vocals and flesh out the basic tracks with towering guitars and synthesizers.
“Kevin’s an absolute wizard,” Nash reflects. “He brought all this incredible analog gear with him to my place in Texas, which was like putting the studio on steroids, and then he added his own incredible musicianship on keys and guitars and drums on top of mixing and mastering it all, too.”
The result is a lush wall of sound that feels both vintage and modern all at once as it swirls 50 years of American roots rock into a fierce sonic maelstrom. Opener “Can’t Stop” sets the stage, with percolating synthesizers bubbling up beneath reverb-drenched guitars that build into an explosive crescendo. “Can’t stop / Keep spinning these wheels,” Nash proclaims in the soaring chorus. “Come closer and I’ll show you how it feels.” Like much of the album, it’s a song about motion and growth and liberation, but there’s also doubt lurking beneath the surface. Are we getting somewhere, or are the wheels just spinning in place? The fiery “Roman Candle” chases confidence and inner-strength, while the melancholy “Pieces” searches for a sense of normalcy in the wake of loss, and the dreamy “Firedance” refuses to surrender to the weight of the world.
“After the past few years we’ve all been through, I really think people need songs they can sing along to,” says Nash. “We all need that feeling of communal catharsis.”
Catharsis is at the core of Nash’s character studies on Ozarker, which are frequently drawn from real life. The rapturous title track tells the story of Nash’s great-grandfather, a migrant worker who fell in love with an orchard owner’s daughter and kept his promise to return in a year to marry her; the searing “Lost In America”—inspired by a family friend—follows a shell-shocked Vietnam vet who can’t find peace in his own skin; and the ominous “Shadowland” explores the vicious cycles of drug abuse and poverty that continue to haunt struggling families in rural Missouri.
“No matter where you come from or where you go, you’ll always carry your past with you,” Nash reflects. “The people, the places, the stories, that’s what makes you you.”
It’s what makes Israel Nash an Ozarker.