When an artist gets a good producer it can usually elevate his career; when the artist gets an acclaimed producer, the trajectory often climbs to an even higher level. That may well be the case for Asheville-based finger-picking guitarist, singer-songwriter Christopher Paul Stelling who teams with Ben Harper on Best of Luck, Stelling’s fifth album. It’s a genre-crossing effort that’s hard to pin down with elements of folk, soul and rock, but it’s almost as if Stelling has an emotional breakthrough in the album. Discontent and self-doubt lead to newly found self-confidence expressed in messages of resilience and hope. Harper feels like he found a kindred spirit, “It was like finding a John Fahey or Leo Kottke that was really a great singer.”
Joining Stelling (guitar, piano, harmonica) are Harper (slide guitar, piano. B3, harmonium, bells) on select tracks with drummer Jimmy Paxson (Stevie Nicks, Dixie Chicks), bassist Mike Valerio ( Randy Newman, L.A. Philharmonic) and Julia Christgau on backing vocals on two tunes. Engineer and mixer Jason Soda also plays guitar and bass on “Waiting Game.” The album was recorded in Los Angeles, at Harper’s invitation, having been impressed with Stelling’s talent as an opening act on Harper’s tour a couple of years ago. Stelling had never worked with a producer before.
The opening “Have to Do for Now” begins with fingerpicking as Stelling sings of a moment between an unexamined past and an uncertain future. He’s writing about the fear of losing memories and the relief of letting them go. It centers on falling from a tree as a youngster, having his head split open. The chorus essentially speaks to the theme of the album with this chorus – “I’m still alive, still alive/wanna work more than to survive/got the time/know-how, and pride/that’ll have to do for now.” He carries this optimism into the melodic half love song, half lullaby “Lucky Stars,” imbued by Christgau’s harmonies here and again on the driving, gospel-tinged “Trouble Don’t Follow Me.”
The revved-up folk-blues of “Until I Die” is a rather jolting change of pace, featuring raw guitar and primal beats. Stelling calls it a “psychedelic rant.” The stripped-down “Made Up Your Mind” returns to soothing, finger-picking folk with Harper adding bells to Stelling’s sparkling guitar work in the break. Stelling reveals more stellar picking in the instrumental “Blue Bed.” The infectious “Something in Return speaks to contentment and healthy realization with the chorus – “you told me all along,/if only I had listened before I got it wrong.”
”Hear Me Calling” is electric guitar-fueled rock n’ roll rave-up with Stelling shouting the lyrics. While at first it seems like an outlier, it serves perhaps as a release of pent-up frustrations. The ballad “Waiting Game” introduces piano and mines the same thematic territory as his opener, music as a healing force. The piano imbues the lovely closer and aptly named lullaby “Good Night Sweet Dreams.”
When Harper talks about his admiration for Stelling, he refers to his family’s legendary folk music store, filled with instruments and a fluid merging of styles and genres. “When I listen to Chris, I hear my grandparents’ store in Claremont,” Harper says. “He’s carrying on that tradition. A guy that can play any instrument from any country and play it with real feeling. He crosses genres but manages to respect them; he is a folk singer with an unusual soulfulness. He understands where this music comes from and why it remains so essential. Of all the records I have produced, this is one I’m most proud of.”
Given Harper’s work with Charlie Musselwhite, Mavis Staples, The Blind Boys of Alabama, and others, that last sentence alone should draw listeners to Stelling. Count on Stelling’s awareness to grow by leaps and bounds. Talent like his can’t stay under the radar any longer.