Hailing from Rockwall, Texas—a satellite town in the Dallas metroplex—Chris J. Norwood plays to personal and perennial themes in “Longshot,” his first full-length album. But if he lands on any well-worn country topics, Norwood deftly navigates them with sharp lyrics and a fresh alternative take on the genre.
Norwood can’t get much more intimate with his listeners than in “Howling in the Wind,” in which he sings from the perspective of his father, who committed suicide during his childhood. Norwood’s striking imagery thoughtfully hints at his subject-matter: an empty scotch glass and open water, a child alone in the backseat of an idled minivan. The song’s chorus offers encouragement to run, but again doesn’t betray a full picture to the listener—is this Norwood speaking to his father, or vice versa? Such ambiguity carries into the arrangement, and in the alternating lines between guitar and violin.
Where “Howling in the Wind” is intimate, “If You Come Around” swaggers in its somber subject matter. Singing about a young woman who leaves a small town to find success, and the young man who still pines after her, it dances deftly between details large and small, all lonely and beautiful. “I bet you’re off being bathed in lights, while I’m playing pool on a Friday night at the Legion club downtown.” It aches with the bitterness of being left behind, especially with lines like, “When people ask you where you’re from, I always wonder what you say.” But then, zooming out from this one man to the town he’s stuck in, “The factories shipped overseas, and the lights burned out on the old marquee, and the shops, they all closed down.” Norwood here exposes a struggle that resonates with many rural Americans. Eleanor Whitmore’s string arrangements float beautifully between the verses and offer nostalgia for a now-rusting community.
“There’s Always Someplace You’ve Never Been,” is a snarky track disguised as a free-wheeling celebration. Taking many cues from Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” Norwood is cynical and confrontational, singing, “I bet the view rushing by sure is nice … so keep on moving and don’t ever look back ‘til the bitter end,” emphasizing “‘til the bitter end” with repetition of the line. Norwood even posits his own “How does it feel?” and “Are you walking away? Are you just walking in circles?”
Norwood’s clear lyrical talents don’t quite carry through in the album’s title track and single, with its long catalog of gambling quips, but it does offer a playful counterpoint to the album’s more contemplative numbers, with driving beats and ample guitar twangs. Conrad Couchroun’s percussion plays on its call for the couple to, “Let it Ride,” with beats that sound like a train gaining steam, or a car hitting the bumps in changing highways.
“A Good Man” also falls flat lyrically. Much of the album plays with clichéd ideas, but Norwood typically presents something thematically or musically fresh to keep the listener well-engaged. He doesn’t seem to pull it off in this tune—a woman passes up on a nice guy, only to be heartbroken by the bad boy she left for, all to the vindication and satisfaction of the nice guy. After the emotional depth displayed on so many tracks, this song ignores how adults engage in romance. It also presents a hypocrisy too often seen these days: would such a good man (who “comes around once”) hold such unwavering resentment for a woman who chooses to leave him? Perhaps this song was written tongue-in-cheek, but if that’s the case, it could use a stronger tell.
Norwood returns to form in “Love Keeps Us Strong.” Although most of the album’s tracks are in 2/4 or in 4/4 time—perfect for a two-step—“Love Keeps Us Strong” dips into ¾, sounding more like a waltz than anything else. The listener feels the passing of time in the sweeping rhythm: “Life moves on.” Norwood recounts his own birth from the perspective of his father, and his childhood, progressing into his father’s alcoholism and depression, and then suicide, with Norwood reflecting, “I still believe in the chance for redemption.” His chance comes with the birth of his daughter. “Now it’s my turn to wait for the dove.” It’s a very full, warm track, with the accompaniment of acoustic guitar, piano, violin and strings that linger after the final lines: “Life, love.”
Across the album’s 11 tracks, Norwood displays great range for a contemporary country artist—from a lyrical depth and emotional intimacy that will draw in folksier fans, to foot-stompers that aim to please the ear and get an audience on its feet. As a first full feature, it leaves the listener curious for more from Chris Norwood.
The album is out on State Fair Records and is available on Spotify, and Norwood will be performing at ‘til Midnight at the Nasher in downtown Dallas on Sept. 15 at 6 p.m.