The songs Lyal Strickland writes are like the world he lives in: A little tough sometimes, doggedly inspiring at others, but always absolutely real. “I’ve never understood all those country songs about backroading and partying all the time,” says the Missouri Ozarks songwriter. “That’s great, but I always wondered where they find time for that. Don’t you still have to work sometime?”
Strickland doubles as a working farmer so when he writes about surviving in modern-day America, he’s speaking from experience. He’s also been writing songs since high school, when he played assemblies and sold homemade CD’s for souvenirs. 2014’s Balanced on Barbed Wire was his sixth album, but the first to get national distribution and acclaim; winning raves like “Pure Americana, melodic and warm; lyrically thoughtful and full of feel” (Popdose) and music with “Universal resonance…rural grit and grace” (No Depression). Now comes Preservation, combining Strickland’s signature gritty singing and sharp observations with some of his most personal work to date.
Most of the songs were written in a two-week burst of activity, and recorded with a small group of carefully selected musicians—a change from past albums, where he’d include “everybody I could think of, just because it was great to have them all on the record.” Aiming for a modern authenticity, he used a mix of vintage and contemporary equipment that gave ‘Preservation’ a warm and natural tone. “I didn’t want to polish things up too much. I wanted a sound that would be true to the lyrics.”
With full production, the more tender songs like “Pretty Good Core” sit comfortably alongside anthems like “Minimum Wage.” One major key to the sound is pedal steel legend Robby Turner, who’s played with Waylon Jennings, the Dixie Chicks, Sturgill Simpson, and can currently be found with Chris Stapleton. “We have some songs here that are soft and fragile and a couple that are pretty rambunctious, so we thought a lot about making it all sound cohesive. Robby made that happen,” Strickland says.
Strickland’s natural territory remains the real-life working world. In “The Hotel Maid” a couple deals with mounting tax bills—they take whatever low paying jobs are available despite having the education for a career. “Clyde and His Clippers” asks whether a beloved small-town business can survive the invasion of big-box stores, while “Minimum Wage” asks whether anyone can survive a paycheck that’s less than a living wage. As a proud 7th generation resident of Buffalo, MO, Strickland doesn’t have to look far to find material. “It can be an odd place, because we’re not exactly in the middle of nowhere. We’re about 30 minutes from Springfield, Missouri which is the third largest city in the state. So all those places are doing fine and we’re left a bit behind, which gives us a little bit of a chip on our shoulder—Like we’re going to hang in no matter what. You see people in the post office with the same determined look in their eye, like ‘We’re all going to stick this out together’.”
On ‘Preservation’ there are just as many songs about interpersonal relationships. Here again his characters are up against desperate circumstances, whether it’s a yearning to make things right after a divorce on “Gone For A Weekend”, or the turmoil of dealing with an alcoholic partner. The former a wrenched ballad with it’s push-pull between lyrics and pedal steel; the second a swaying, sad lullaby whose hero, although ever stumbling on the path towards a better future, remains optimistic.
“Overall I’d say I was in more of a raw state this time around, and was open to writing about things that cut a little deeper.” That includes his grandmother’s struggles with dementia, a topic he deals with unflinchingly on “Her Way Back Home”—a song as much concerned with her resilience of spirit as the struggles to care for her.
Two cover tunes make the list on ‘Preservation’. “Always Make the Mistake”, written by The Young Novelists’ Graydon James, is a country-folk heartbreaker with tender harmonies that reaches into the lesser talked about complications of a love triangle. The last track on ‘Preservation’, a cover of “It’ll Shine When It Shines” (the title track to the Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ 1974 sophomore album) is both a fitting conclusion and a nod to Strickland’s musical roots. His friendship with that band goes back to 2009, when cofounder Larry Lee helped produce Strickland’s first full production album; but his love for the Daredevils goes back much further. “What could be more Ozarks than the Dares? I’ve always loved that song. When you listen to their version, it’s really more laid-back and introspective. But when I’ve played it live over the years, with everybody singing along, it got more rip-roaring. I thought it’d be great to capture that side of it. It ties in with the rest of the songs; the sense that sometimes you just have to let things happen and see how it goes.”
In months to come Strickland will be temporarily leaving his farming duties to spend more time on the road. But he says those two pursuits aren’t that different; you have to give them both all the passion you’ve got. “Whether it’s farming or music, I feel that if you’re not putting in the time and the work, you’re just playing at it. I hate getting offstage and feeling like I didn’t sweat a drop. It should feel like you left something behind after you’ve sung your songs; like you’ve worked through a part of it.”