Dark times can often yield the most outstanding work. Walking the fine line between honky-tonk heroism and hand-sewn Americana, Lyman Ellerman culls together vast stylistic influences from the burnt, deeply-troubled edges of Townes Van Zandt to the polished but expansive approach of The Eagles. Having already shared stages with David Allan Coe, Dallas Moore, and Ward Davis, Ellerman is poised to reach the Americana masses with his forthcoming record I Wish I Was A Train (due 8/10 on Woodshed Resistance Records), twisting his poetic grandeur into honestly grim reflections of addiction, loss, recovery and heartache.
Teaming up with long-time collaborator Jason Morgan, Ellerman settles into a rather dark place and allows himself to feel each emotional punch. I Wish I Was a Train barrels right for the heart. “The clock on the wall echos out of time with your steps down the hall / And each tick of the tock is like a bomb going off, reminds you how far you’ve gone wrong,” he wields on stunner “Nobody Knows You (Like I Do),” pacing the album with the delicate balance of gloom and hope. “Bigger Plans” chugs along at a brisker pace, electric guitars pumping on all cylinders. “When you tally your possessions, what will they buy you on that day / Will your prominence and stature keep the free from harm’s way,” he dares, a malevolent force clouding overhead. His voice is as sinister as it is somehow soothing, almost transforming into this all-knowing presence taking your hand and reassuring you everything will be OK in the end.
Ellerman’s story is your classic tale of a small-town boy with big dreams. Out of central Illinois, he picked up guitar in his mid-teens and played in his first band at 18, shaking up shows all over town. He was later struck to hone his songwriting ability and headed down south to Mississippi and Louisiana. When he found himself in Baton Rouge, he holed up in a local studio to record and found his way to Bee Gees bassist Harold Cowart, who helped him produce many of his earliest recordings. In between touring, Ellerman made many a trip to Nashville and eventually made contact with a label executive of the now-defunct Universal South, a subsidiary of the much larger Universal Music Group.
Upon moving to Nashville permanently, Ellerman struck his first publishing deal in 2005 and went on to land more than 20 independent cuts on various fringe, alt-country releases and collaborate with such mainstay songwriters as Marshall Tucker Band founding member and guitarist George McCorkle, Larry Steele (.38 Special), Buddy Brock (Tracy Byrd, Aaron Tippin), Wil Nance (Brad Paisley, George Strait), Bill Shore (Garth Brooks) and Keesy Timmer (Kelsea Ballerini). His song “Drink Your Wine” (from the Get Loose record) was featured in the 2016 award-winning independent film, Last Call at Murray’s, starring John Savage and Michael Gross. When the deal expired three years later, Ellerman turned his sights to stretching his creative wings as an artist, and as luck would have it, he befriended Jason Morgan, who went on to produce Ellerman’s next two albums.
I Wish I Was a Train serves as not only a natural progression to the duo’s collaborative efforts but spotlights a rather important artistic mile marker in Ellerman’s career. With such a sturdy foundation of life experiences, Ellerman crafts a cohesively somber project and offers up sage wisdom about life’s dark and winding roads. “If that road gets you in its ditches, boy, it’ll never let you go,” he remarks on a Merle Haggard-sized deep cut.
The charm not only lies in Ellerman’s phrasing but the hi-fi production quality, owed in large part to a respectful give and take in the studio. “Jason is really proficient. When it comes to ideas, he can arrange them up and steer me in a direction I wouldn’t have gone without him,” says Ellerman of their ongoing partnership. “A lot of times, if I hear something in my head, melodically, and I don’t really feel like I can create that, he usually can. Then, I can add to that. It’s really been a labor of love.”
In honor of Father’s Day, Ellerman has chosen a unique playlist (below) of songs that represent the memories his mother and others shared with him about his father. Ellerman was two when his father, who was a logger/lumberjack, died at 32 by a tree that fell on him while operating a dozer.
“It’s hard to say you miss someone or loved someone as a parent, that you have no recollection of; no actual memories of your own. There is a sense that you are different than most in that regard,” says Ellerman. “It was awkward as a child at times, when others would talk about their fathers, or when I would see other kids with their mothers and fathers. But my mother me loved twice as much as any mother ever loved their son, or at least that’s how she made me feel.”
“I did eventually wonder what it might have been like to know my father. Whether I was like him, or if I reminded my mother, or others that did know him or of him. I would imagine the sound of his laugh, or what he sounded like if he were angry,” adds Ellerman. “I’d think about the sort of things he would have said to me, and what kind of fatherly advice or wisdom he would have tried to share, while knowing I would disregard it at first, then gradually cede to that knowledge as I matured. But more importantly, they represent the sort of father I have tried to be to my children, whom I do know, love and cherish. That’s what fatherhood is really all about for me.”
Jason Isbell -“Outfit” – I like Jason a lot. He’s a talented songwriter with a unique storytelling style I’m drawn to. This is one of those bits of advice I could imagine my father might have given me when I decided to head for Nashville, reminding me to always be a man, to be true to myself and never sell out, to remember my family, to be mindful of the dangers and the scoundrels, and to never end up doing what he did for a living. It’s also the sort of advice I gave my son when set out to find his path. There is one line in this song that haunts me, but it needs to be there.
Shooter Jennings – “It Ain’t Easy” -This was just an obvious choice. Shooter writes from a place few of us will know, but most of us can relate to. This song just makes me think of any father that wants the best for his son, but knows his son may be expected to live up to, or down to, some predetermined set of expectations based on his father’s legacy. “It ain’t easy, but you’ll be OK”. Shooter had some pretty big shoes to full in that regard, and this song makes me think he’ll be just fine.
Lyman Ellerman – “Ditches” – This is the best dang song on this playlist folks! But being serious for a moment, sometimes it’s hard to know what to say when someone asks what the inspiration was for a particular song was. I’ve written songs that started out being about one thing, and end up being about something else. I’ve written songs that were about some very specific emotion or inspiration at the time I wrote that song, but it has come to mean something entirely different over the years. Ditches is a cautionary tale about the road of life. I can’t say I intended the song to be fatherly advice when I wrote it, but it is the sort of thing I could imagine my father might have said to me. Perhaps while sitting next to him in an old pick up, throwing dust up behind driving down an old dirt road, trying not to hang a wheel in the ditch.
Robert Earl Keen – “Daddy Had a Buick” – I don’t think this one needs much explaining. Keen was/is a big influence on me. This song is just cool. It’s exactly the sort of thing I’d like to think my mother and father would have done when they were young. It’s also the kind of song I wish I would’ve written, but my daddy never had a Buick, and I could never find anything to rhyme with “Studebaker”. “Rutabaga” comes to mind now, but I’m not sure how I would have worked that in to a song…
Cat Stevens – “Father & Son” – I know he goes by Yusef now, but he’ll always be Cat Stevens to me. This is just a great old classic. Cat Stevens wrote and arranged in a way you don’t hear anymore, and frankly we hadn’t heard before. I knew what it was obviously about long before I became a father, but it came to mean a great more to me after I did. In fact, this song has come to mean more to me every time I listen to it. Pay attention folks, there’s more truth and wisdom in this song than most.
John Hiatt – “Seven Little Indians” – At the risk of repeating myself, John is another great story teller. Everything about this songs make me think of what life might have been had I got to know my father. I think my father would have made a fine “Big Chief”. I can almost imagine being in that living room, listening to him “telling stories from a slightly unrealistic point of view”.
Harry Chapin -“Cat’s in the Cradle” – This is another classic. I am certain that just about every father and every adult son that heard that song for the first time, ran home and called or hugged their son or father and told them how much they loved them. I would have, but father was already gone and my son had yet to be born. Still, if this one doesn’t get you, you might want to get your pulse checked.
Mike and The Mechanics – “The Living Years” – This one is a bit of a departure for me. For starters, the original version was a heavily produced record, and one of the biggest global chart-topping hits of the era. Not normally the sort of record I would connect with. But this song is one of those that draws you in before the first word is sang. You already know, before the first verse comes up – this is going to be one of those emotionally riveting songs. And the fact that it speaks so candidly about unresolved issues between a father and son, about words never spoken, and the regret of never being able to say the things you wish you could have while your father, or son, were still alive. And still, after all that, the song reminds us that we still have that opportunity to reach out and speak those unspoken words to that person while they are alive. For a lot of reasons, this song cuts close to the bone for me.
Dan Fogelberg – “The Leader of the Band” – Another classic old masterpiece that I liked a lot as a young man, but for different reasons than it comes to mean to me later. My father, as it turned out, was indeed a more complex fellow than I had understood as a boy. He was the rough, leather skinned logger/timber man I had heard so much about, but he was also a guitar player, and a singer. He played an old Gibson arch-top, mostly with a slide and tuned to an open E. At times I think I can actually remember that guitar. These days I like to think he was, or could have been, the leader of the band, and that maybe he passed that legacy on to me. Not just because I play an old Gibson now, or sing and write songs, well maybe …
John Lennon – “Beautiful Boy” – This song, perhaps more than all the others, captures the essence of fatherhood to me. But for deeply personal reasons, it is difficult for me to share all of the thoughts and feelings this song elicits from me. So I will leave you with this: John Lennon was a songwriting genius, and a big influence in my life as a young man when I first began to listen to songs in a different way. It’s human nature to notice the obvious – a big chorus, guitar hooks, spot-on vocal harmonies, etc. We all hear those parts. But John Lennon had a way of weaving less obvious, but still critically important pieces into his songs. The arrangements could be very simple, yet somehow fill a big space in the song. The kind of thing you might not notice unless it wasn’t there, but would be very obvious if it wasn’t. This song had all of that going on, and yet it is the lyrics in this particular song that are, for me now and forever, the most compelling element of this song. I’m dedicating this one to my Beautiful Boy.