Rising from somewhere over the Sierra foothills, arcing as if to guide his family’s travels from there to other homes throughout his youth, eventually peaking to illuminate his first albums, Nathaniel Street-West’s ascension heralded the arrival of a gifted young singer, songwriter and musician. He cut his first album at 14; a year later he became the youngest student ever admitted to the Musicians Institute in Hollywood. His music reflected multiple influences yet achieved such originality so quickly that it won comparisons to the greatest of his predecessors, including Bob Dylan himself.
But then, after his third album dropped in 2006, Street-West slipped from the radar screen. Those who knew him well understood why: the MPA Vasculitis with which he was born, against which he had to struggle daily and ceaselessly, finally demanded his full attention. From chemotherapy through having a pacemaker inserted to regulate an erratic heartbeat, Street-West and his family balanced his struggle with ensuring that he enjoyed an otherwise normal upbringing. While he continued to write and record music, with encouragement from mentors like Jim Keltner, Don Smith and Martin Pradler, concurring heart failure often left Street-West physically unable to complete his projects.
That struggle continues but fortunately Street-West has turned a corner with it. It’s a part of his life now, not his entire life. Diligence, medical advances and dogged determination have opened the door for him to dedicate himself fully once again to writing, recording and performing.
To mark this milestone, Street-West releases Blue Country on his Puffin Records imprint. Exuberance and spontaneity animate each of these 12 original tracks, many of them improvised to a significant degree during recording. The depth of the stories he sings are thus especially remarkable. He expresses emotions vividly, sometimes by finding the poetry in deliberately complex prose (“Take care of your self-centered nihilism because it’s truly an interdependent world,” he warns impishly on “Cease Fire!”), sometimes through disarming innocence (“When I first kissed her, boys, did it feel good!” on “Windows”).
Truthfully, Street-West is having the time of his life on Blue Country, thanks in part to his move to Nashville in 2013. Soon he found himself drawn to its musical vitality as he continued to regain his strength. Two of his friends, guitarist Sam Hunter and bassist Michael Rinne, were eager to work with him on a new project in 2015. They cut five Street-West songs together. It sounded great but ...
“ ... it reminded me too much of my past albums, when I wasn’t in very good health,” Street-West recalls. “On each of my first three releases, a producer would come in and impose their style that was not really me. That’s not how I wanted it to be for Blue Country. My inspirations this time were people like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Muddy Waters, Leadbelly and early blues artists, who would go into the studio with great ideas for songs and just go from there.”
So Street-West hatched a new strategy. Working with connections throughout the musical community as well as with the help of Hunter and Rinne, he brought some of Nashville’s most talented young players to Welcome To 1979 Studios. Street-West introduced himself, talked about his goals for Blue Country and then began an extraordinary two-day, 14-hour session in which they all worked from sketchy notes, threw ideas back and forth in real time and even followed Street-West as he often started making up lyrics on the spot.
It was unlike anything Street-West had ever done — probably new as well for the players he’d recruited. Sometimes the results were so electric that he would even laugh in mid-lyric.
And for that mix and the mastering, he brought in a music industry giant. With five Grammy Awards and a prospectus that includes work with Steve Earle, LucindaWilliams, Ray Davies and Billy Joe Shaver, Ray Kennedy was able to listen to Street-West’s rough mixes and know immediately how to bring them to life.
“Nathaniel’s music, his performance, the musicians — all of it was excellent,” Kennedy says. “It just took a few adjustments to unmask it. When I mix, I look for magic, for how the instruments support each other and the synergy between them and the artist. That’s all there in Blue Country. It’s his artistry — the songs and the way he sings them, the way he weaves words and images together with the melody. He’s a true artist, with a lot to say.”
“When it comes to mixing, Ray is a genius,” Street-West says. “We recorded this music so quickly, all at once with the idea that if it didn’t work, we’d throw it out. It turns out that all of it worked. In fact, it turned out amazing! I don’t know anyone else who could have done that.”
What’s next? Ray Kennedy speaks for Street-West’s longstanding fans as well as those who will hear him soon for the first time: “I know that Nathaniel cannot wait to kick ass by beginning live shows once again and presenting his new music to the world.”
Born from a unique vision, animated by passionate vocals and years worth of energy released at long last, galvanized by the talent each participant brought to the table, Blue Country is just what Street-West’s longtime fans have always wanted: a fulfillment of his promise, the launch of a career too long delayed but ultimately and at last unstoppable.
- Bob Doesrschuk (2017).