Honesty. Authenticity. Integrity. Three chords and the truth. These are words and phrases are often associated with true country music. They are also often used to describe punk rock. While both genres are wildly different, there is a commonality and an almost kinship (however messed up) lyrically between the two as many of the most idyllic songs in both worlds are about real life and the human condition.
Over the years many artists known for their punk rock roots have found success on the outskirts of country music. Punk legends Social Distortion covered Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Sr., among many other legends (their singer Mike Ness also released two country albums in the 90s), English punk/folker Frank Turner toured last summer with Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell, and No Use For A Name and Foo Fighters lead guitarist Chris Shiflett is set to release his latest country album produced by Dave Cobb in April. It’s now time to add the lead singer of one of the most important American punk rock bands in the past 30 years to that list.
Bad Religion’s ridiculously literate (Ph.D. from Cornell and a college lecturer) lyricist and singer Greg Graffin has recently offered up his latest solo album Millport, produced, co-written and released by band-mate Brett Gurewitz on his Epitaph Records’ sister label ANTI. The album is undeniably California Country in the finest way and is one of the best country/Americana albums released so far this year. The songs range from the recollections of a child growing up on the mid-tempo country rocker “Backroads Of My Mind” to the full-on banjos and fiddles of the up-tempo title track, which adds a slice of Bad Religion style with its countrified “gang vocals” in the chorus.
In true storytelling fashion, “Lincolns Funeral Train” reflects on the 16th President’s last train ride. Don’t let the crunchy guitars fool you, it’s a classic storytelling song of a historical figure, a la Johnny Cash. Greg Graffin’s vocal range is well-suited for the song as his voice grows deeper to punctuate and hit the somber moments in the song.
“Too Many Virtues” is the most California Country song on the album and could have been a good Eagles song if such a thing is possible.
Leave it to the Bad Religion singer and self-proclaimed “Naturalist” not “atheist” to record an “ungospel song” on this country album. “Time Of Need” is a piano driven track with solid lead guitars and a gospel choir harmonizing “So I say Amen, Amen. No religion can help this time of need.”
One of Millport’s most poignant moments is “Shotgun,” a song that can break your heart with its brutal sincerity as Greg Graffin sings “If I had a dollar for each time you let me down then I’d’ve been a rich man long ago.” And while that sentiment sounds negative, he’d ultimately only ride shotgun with that special someone.
It’s not all doom and gloom on Millport. “Making Time” is an uplifting, jangly old REM sounding song, despite its first line “Just another day of sorrow goin’ down” (not to be confused with his iconic band’s song “Sorrow.” The song admirably features great banjo picking in the chorus and a live in the moment message. “Echo On The Hill” is an uptempo feat of bluegrass goodness and hope.
Ultimately, Greg Graffin’s Millport is an understated, yet aurally pleasing listening experience, with lyrics that will make you reflect, invigorate and strike a nerve. It’s country at its core without pandering to the oh so familiar cliches depicted on the radio these days.