Reaching for Channing Wilson is reaching for the hardest stuff possible in the realm of country music. If this music was alcohol, it’d be the kind of spirits that are illegal in some parts of Alabama—the stuff that dubs as turpentine in a pinch. You want country damn music, straight with no chaser, in the triple proof industrial strength, served with the most gut-wrenching and heart-pounding stories possible while backed by a Waylon half-time beat? Channing Wilson is your man and everyone else can sit their asses down.
A long-time and well-respected songwriter originally from North Georgia, Channing Wilson has paid as many dues as possible. Now here a good decade or two after Channing probably should have been backstopped up by some monied Nashville high roller and thrust into the spotlight, he is finally getting his shot with an album produced by Dave Cobb. And no, Channing Wilson didn’t get all of this way just to fumble right before the goal line. He’s blows through the back of the end zone and leaves the crowd to rush the field and tear down the goal posts.
Not for the weak or defibrillated, Channing Wilson doesn’t deliver songs, he pounds them into your chest like a battering ram. The power and punch of what he is serving up here should come with a warning label and require a stress test of the audience. Waylon gets all manner of credit for being the hard-edged country “Outlaw,” but anyone who actually knows his catalog can attest he sung all kinds of love ballads and such too. The closest thing you get to a love song here is the one where Channing talks about being crazy.
What’s always been strange about Channing Wilson being so under-the-radar is not just how good he is with words, which is something fellow artists like Luke Combs, Sunny Sweeney, Travis Tritt, and Jason Eady have all recognized by putting his songs on their albums. It’s also the heartbreaking soul and sheer earth-shattering power with which Channing delivers them. That’s why it’s always felt scandalous that he wasn’t better known outside of Nashville songwriting rounds. And it’s what makes this Dead Man album so potent. Channing Wilson is a songwriter, and a performer.
“Blues Comin’ On” is fine as a written song, even if it’s not especially novel. But it’s Channing Wilson’s delivery that drives it home. As you listen, you get put right back in that place where you know you’re headed down the wrong side of an emotional roller coaster, and the dread overtakes you. If country music had a heavy metal version, this would be it. But Channing also keeps the songs firmly in the realm of hard blues-inspired Outlaw country.
“Drink That Strong,” “Beer For Breakfast,” and all the other alcohol references throughout this album could give you cirrhosis even if you’ve been six years sober. The hard punctuations of “Dead Man Walking” are enough to wake Lazarus. Whatever Channing Wilson chooses to do on this album, he does it hard. When he sings the comparatively sedate and solemn “Sunday Morning Blues” clearly inspired by the Kristofferson influence on Outlaw country, he almost sounds like a different person.
Some may feel like Dead Man is a little too “one note” for them. At no point does Channing Wilson venture that far away from the drunk, depressed, and destitute attitude that the album was built upon. There is no opportunity to come up for air. But for those who’ve spent years building up tolerance to heartbreaking and depressing songs, and need something to break through all the pain to make you feel alive again, this is your poison.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8.5/10)
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