Album Review: Mike Collins Jr. ‘Tryin to Stay Ahead’

Mike Collins Jr. Tryin To Stay Ahead
(Fork and Spoon Records –  2014)
(Folk, Minimalist Country)

It’s a hard world out there for “Juniors”—born in a shadow and shackled with an instant, pan-fried nickname at birth, we’re frequently doomed to pick up either a stringed instrument or a NASCAR sponsorship. Mike Collins, Jr., erstwhile member of Say Brother and New Orleans-based banjo-player, chose the first path—and with superb results. Currently signed to Fork & Spoon, Collins’ second full-length record, Tryin to Stay Ahead, debuted last fall, a virtuoso record of classics and, most excitingly, original compositions that fuse traditional tropes to a vibrant sound.

The initial impression of Tryin to Stay Ahead is one of overpowering folksiness—the dropped-g on the title, the crumbling porch of the cover art—but Collins isn’t interested in using the trappings of folk music as an instant marketing mechanism; instead, it’s a connection to a vanished vernacular. The old field recording spirit is alive in Collins’ music, which sounds as though it could have been recorded in a studio, a screened-in porch, or the back room of a bar. Credit is due to producer Aaron Graves, who lets the scratch and stammer come clearly through without dominating the sound, giving the record both clarity and an appealing kind of scruffiness.

The excellent cover of the Texas Playboys’ stalwart “Oozlin Daddy Blues” gets a minor update—from “flapper” to “hipster girl”—which provides an ideal snapshot of Collins’ aesthetic: backward-facing but deeply modern, not just reinterpretations, but evolutions. There are railroads and hoofbeats in the rhythms, dust in the corners of Collins’ voice, and a lived-in sadness to the lyrics, as in “8th Ward Blues,” where Collins sings, “In South Carolina, don’t nothing go wrong.” Whether it’s true or not, it’s a story to tell yourself when the rain’s coming down and the roof’s leaking. It’s folk music of the stomp-and-holler, lean-back-from-the-mike , looking-for-the-land-of-milk-and-honey school, honed by busking and collaboration, that only falters when it loses the streetside stomp ‘n’ stride vibe, as in the inert cover of Doc Watson’s “Walk on, Boy.” The anti-establishment crackle of “Boys in Blue” kicks the album into high gear, with standout “Homesick Carolina Blues” serving as the album’s thesis. There’s a spirit throughout that plays with the tension between wanderlust and homesickness, and the quintessential kind of nostalgia that floods the South. It’s telling that, on Collins’ BandCamp page, the songs are tagged with states, providing geographic context that can subtly alter the mood of each, bringing a soaked-soil longing to Tryin to Stay Ahead. In short, what Collins has created here is a record that’s so hard a throw-back it’s looped back around to its point of origin: the future of folk music dressed up as its past.

Must Listen: “Boys in Blue,” “Homesick Carolina Blues,” “Oh No,” “8th Ward Blues”

To Avoid: “Walk on Boy,” “Waitin’ on the Landlord”

Setting: About two weeks from now, when it’s eighty-two by noon, and the pollen’s thick enough to cut.

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