"I've been a fan of alt-country ever since it was called Bruce Springsteen," a friend has offered on several occasions, a bit of two-pronged commentary on the slipperiness of categorizations and the ebb and flow of musical styles. In that spirit, I'll offer that I've been a fan of Americana ever since it was called The Band, Randy Newman and Steve Forbert. I was hooked by the echoes of country blues, mountain ballads, Professor Longhair, traveling carnivals, Jimmie Rodgers and the couple dozen other things I still hear in their music.
I drop those three names now because all can be found peeking out on the new one from the Triangle's poster boy for Americana, Jon Shain, a nimble guitarist and underrated singer who's adept at working with those same echoes. His latest, Army Winter Jacket, wears those impressions as proof: "Pictures from the Past" brings to mind The Band's rustic-roots take on "Long Black Veil," while Newman lives in the vocals and cadence of "Another Month of Mondays" and the broad satire of "Flat Earth Crowd." Forbert's presence is most evident when Shain's writing takes the form of a charcoal sketch, as with "Cornershops and Subway Trains," the home of the wonderful description that gives the album its title. Opener "Time to Move On" fits as a wildcard: It's a cover from Tom Petty, a guy who's always been at the top of his game when he was channeling proto-Americana purveyors The Byrds.
But that's not to say Shain spends all his time (or any of it, even) looking far, wide and/or back for influences and inspiration. The album's twin centerpieces—the instrumental "Song for Maria" and the lively, Cajun-spirited "Song for JoJo"—suggest he might only have to look about his house. Or maybe down: The album's best cut is "Silvertone," a love song to a guitar—cobblestone-like warts and all—that's awash in the Caledonia warmth of Van Morrison, back in the prime days of The Band, Newman and Forbert. Call "Silvertone" Jon Shain's triumphant moment of Carolina soul. The whole of Army Jacket Winter, then, is his Americana roadmap, one that peaks when the highway starts rolling back to home.