In Southern regional storytelling even towns can be characters. “Refinery Town” remains nameless, but is most likely somewhere like Canterbury’s hometown of Haynesville, Louisiana. Any sleepy American hamlet ravaged by industry, once proud and productive, now full of blue-collar unemployed –it’s primary industry vanished, it’s citizens trying to maintain some sort of lifestyle in the wake of it’s passing.
Canterbury opens the album with the title track, describing the town’s poverty and nobility. Rimshot drums clack in the foreground of the mix, and pedal steel guitar wanders in and out, giving the song a live-in-a-dive-bar sound. The work is a bit polished for his characters, but there is a total absence of country-politan, woe-is-me, lovelorn whiteboy bullshit when Chris sings “It’s just ashes and empties in this roach motel lounge, on the white trash side of a rusted out refinery town,” or “the shacks down by the tracks were built on blue collar dreams, now it’s just drifters, drunks, and whores — and meth-amphetamines”. Canterbury’s worth at building a setting is obvious with lyrics like “I spent a lifetime turning sweat into gasoline, now there ain’t no means of makin ends meet”. The most talented songwriters can evince era, or time of day, or interior lighting, but with this lyric you can literally smell the work in the words. We’re only one song in.
Elsewhere in the south there are objects of affection for Canterbury, but even those precious jewels are afflicted. In the case of “Evangeline” Canterbury relates a summer where industry and economy meant nothing compared to love, music, and drugs, and the summers after when the drugs took “sweet Evangeline”. She does survive but we know from the opening verse she rises no higher than a silver haired sight selling roses in a parking lot in Memphis. The drums keep on with a boom-clack down the tracks, Canterbury’s voice is ghost-like already, floating through the haze of the instrumentation. He softly sings about deciding to grow up and finding his way “Back To You” by leaving Louisiana.
Here the pace picks up, and the memories grow fonder. On “Silvertone” Canterbury goes to work on his past, telling the story of his grandfather’s union bonus yeilding enough for him to buy his grandmother a dress, and himself a “1967 Sears and Roebuck Silvertone” on which he plays Jimmy Rogers songs wrong. It’s a keen song, full of wonderful vintage detail about better days at the gas plant, union labor, and those kodachrome tinted memories of grandpas house. Light chicken pickin from a flock of guitars, including some electric lend a nice atmosphere to a truly great song.
Settling in to first person, Canterbury lets you know “I can make it home to Shreveport, but I can’t make you stay” on the truck-driving song “Shreveport”, during which his voice leaves barroom volume and begins to use the studio as an instrument, flying along with the electric guitars. “Bottom Of A Glass” is the quintessential dive bar tune about seeking “salvation at the bottom of a glass” in which stained glass glow is really just neon signs. In this church there is only “midnight benediction” “whiskey apparitions” and “second-hand confession”.
Cantebury’s storytelling power comes through again on “Broken Man”, a country-blues rocker about financial desperation. Double slide guitars open the song about “double aught buckshot rippin through the air” as he relays the story of Daddy robbing a liquor store “in broad daylight” for just a “sack full of twentys and some Marlboro lights”. Even here Canterbury stays on theme, making sure to let us know that the antagonist is laid off from the plant, and doing things his way.
In the record’s shining moment (out of many bright ones), “Black Jesus” takes place on a road crew in Georgia, and Canterbury gives us a classic cultural exchange between two work partners one white, one black, trading Hank Williams songs for the blues as they work. The ultimate lesson takes place when his older, vietnam veteran work mate lets him know that “the only difference between us, is your white, and my black Jesus”.
Canterbury’s work sits at a crossroads between outlaw country and crossover sound. There’s an aged whiskey smoothness about his voice, and an FM radio appeal to his melodies. His stories, while beautiful, represent the dark side of the industrial revolution, the slow death of the American dream. For all it’s benefits capitalism does not transmute culture, but Canterbury’s work does transmute the void it leaves behind. Part of the story of America is the juxtaposition between religious faith of the south and it’s economic motivations, it’s immense successes tangled in it’s shame and guilt. Canterbury illustrates the complexity of living there, even now, and his record is not just a pleasure to listen to but an important chronicle of otherwise disregarded American lives.