Spread across Austin Counts' new record are songs of jealousy, sin and heartache, scenes of jail cells and barrooms, and if you look hard enough, even a bit of redemption.
In short, it's a country-blues album through and through, the one-step-up-and-two-steps-back sort, where the bad luck inevitably outweighs the good. It's a record that speaks honestly to real experiences and in that way, Counts says, it lives up to its title of Pima County Soul.
"I play this music because it's soul music. I love soul music because it can be many different things. It doesn't have to be Marvin Gaye or Barry White," he says. "It really depends on what you're putting behind what you're singing. If it's really coming from the heart, the singer has gone through that experience. You can tell if someone's faking what they're singing about or if they're have actually been there."
Pima County Soul and the Pima County Jail EP released last year mark a return to music for Counts, who played in rock and funk bands from high school through most of his 20s, before heading to college to earn a degree in journalism. Now owner of the 4th Avenue Delicatessen, Counts (full disclosure: Counts is a former Tucson Weekly intern) picked up the guitar again a couple years ago, turning his attention to country and blues, the traditional music he grew up with, and began writing his own songs. The first gig offer was a trial by fire, covering for Tucson blues great Tom Walbank one night, with about a week to prepare.
So Pima County Soul and the Pima County Jail are a bit of a reintroduction to music for Counts, who says he's happy being a musical work in progress.
"I'm nowhere near where I want to be or where I want my music to be, but it's definitely coming along," Counts says. "I don't know many musicians who are feel they are where they want to be musically. They want to continue practicing and playing and push the boundaries of their music, to see if they can take it further than what they've been doing. Nobody wants to get stale and I'm in the same school of thought."
Some songs on the new record come from the same sessions that produced the EP, while some represent some moves Counts is making in different directions, expanding on the hybrid sound he's developing. The opening tune, "Burnin' Hot In Tucson," pushes in an electrified, full-band Chicago blues style, while the closer, "Wherever You Go," settles into a more traditional country vibe.
"I'm working on different sounds and different styles, trying to progress my knowledge of down-home country music while I continue on playing blues," he says. The album came out of several different sessions, recording with Walbank, Jimmy Carr, Dimitri Manos and Lana Rebel, and overlaps a bit with the Pima County Jail EP, most notably in the true-to-live title song.
"I didn't want it to be too different form what we did with the EP. A lot of the tracks on the album are from the sessions for that EP," he says. "It still all had to have that same feeling to it. But a lot of the newer stuff is a bit different, a bit more soul."
Work on the album came amidst a steady stream of gigs as well as the launch of Counts' record label, Lonesome Desert, dedicated to raw, stripped-down acoustic music. Lonesome Desert focuses on the no-frills style inspired by the field recordings of legendary folk musicologist Alan Lomax or the early rock 'n' roll of Sun Records, setting up a microphone and hitting record, with the central goal of capturing the performance as close to raw as possible.
"It's a lot more honest and it's a lot more about a person playing their instrument and trying to write good songs that people can connect with and having that human element," Counts says. "I like how un-corporate that sort of soul music is, blues, country, bluegrass, gospel. You don't really hear many things being sold off that unless it's really generic music."
Pima County Soul is Lonesome Desert's seventh release in seven months, following Counts' EP, a compilation, and discs from Walbank, Chris Hall, Hank Topless and Mark Matos. Having made a strong, sustained push to get the label going, Lonesome Desert activity will slow down a bit, Counts says, but future projects include a potential fall release from Al Perry.
"It's been a pretty crazy busy year tying to get Lonesome Desert off the ground as well as trying to get my original music going. But we're getting a great response," he says. "It all started out getting a couple guys into Midtown Island [Studio] and recording a couple songs and trying to something out of it. Everybody who came to play really had great material and was able to put their heart and soul into these recordings."
Audiences can always recognize when a performer is singing from true-live experiences, Counts says, so writing songs that way keeps both the gigs and the records honest.
"You can tell a song that's coming from someone's heart when they go out and sing it," he says. "It should come from a person's experience, or pretty damn close. They should have a foot in the water of what they're singing about. It's easier to be able to put myself into songs I write and sing. Pima County Jail draws from my experience and everything on the album draws from some experience in my life. Every bit of what's being sung are situations I've had to go through."
Performing can be bittersweet, especially nights of putting those raw nerves down for an uninterested audience, he says.
"For guys like me, who play locally and play out two to three times a week, there aren't going to be a ton of people at the shows," he says. "It's great when people are out there to hear you but sometimes you're playing to the walls. It can be discouraging but you can also use that to your advantage. When you have a crowd you can tell isn't really into your music or you're not connecting to them, there's an opportunity right there to work on how to connect and take that to future crowds and future shows. It's about going out and trying to progress and get better. It's about being in the moment and playing."