By Matt Wickstrom
Soldier and cattleman turned songwriter Paul Handelman was one of my grandest highlights from last year’s Kickin’ It On The Creek, an epic underground musical gathering hidden in the hollers of Eastern Kentucky featuring some of the best musicians from Appalachia and beyond including Tyler Childers, Town Mountain and Kelsey Waldon.
That glorious fall weekend was my introduction to Handelman, who in addition to playing an early afternoon set at the event was constantly stirring up late night jams around nearby campfires, with his distinct vocals packing both a punch of power and smooth finish rivaling the best Kentucky bourbons. His howls echoed throughout the nearby hollers, drawing in curious listeners from the farthest corners of the backwoods oasis with his enchanting and heartfelt tales showing a chink in the armor of the former U.S. Army Ranger.
That same vulnerability shines through on Until This Point, Handelman’s debut full-length album recorded with Kenny Miles (of Wayne Graham) at Fat Baby Studios in Whitesburg, Ky. The compilation features subtle honky tonk, bluegrass and western swing elements helping to paint a landscape as wide open as the wild, wild west for Handelman’s words to wander. Joining Handelman throughout the project are familiar Kentucky musicians John Looney (Grits & Soul) on electric guitar and mandolin, Travis Egnor (The Horse Traders) on pedal steel, Wayne Graham’s Chris Justice (upright bass), Kenny Miles (background vocals, electric bass and baritone guitar) and Hayden Miles (percussion).
Additionally, the album also features John Thomas (fiddle) and Dan Johnson (banjo), two players that Handelman has met during his nomadic, post-Army journey, with Thomas turning up in Austin, Texas, as a member of the Burnt Orange Bluegrass Band at the University of Texas and Johnson coming from near Handelman’s childhood home in Missouri.
Speaking with Handelman just before he hit the road from Oklahoma to Montana to deliver a trailer that he bought and spent the last few years renovating to it’s new owner, the artist described Until This Point as an album of growth, documenting the ups, downs and personal discoveries from his time since being out of the Service, or as he puts it “Where I’ve come from and where I plan on going from here.” The trailer was Handelman’s home away from home for most of those journeys, which hit home on the album’s opening “Gypsy Home,” a song about finding a home, the stories you make during the process and who you share those stories with.
The song leads into “Last Time,” a song that Handelman described as “The only love song I’ve ever written, and the only one I will ever write.” The tune is the first of three on the album where the artist is joined on vocals by Mallory Eagle, a Nashville-based singer-songwriter that Handelman first met a couple years ago during a co-writing session on the farm he tended cattle on as Eagle was on her way to Austin to perform during a SXSW showcase.
The song tells of how Handleman—upside down, turned around and coming unhinged—working his fingers to the bone and moving constantly from one place to another and filling with loneliness finally came across someone worth slowing down for before he had to be on his way again, not knowing when another similar moment to slow down and cherish will come as the two come together to sing “But I’ve been so damn lonely / Until you showed that I just can’t do no wrong / I can’t tell you the last time / I danced to a slow song.”
Much of Until This Point features a writing style and perspective that Handelman describes as personal relationship non-fiction based loosely on the experiences of himself and those in his small circle of family and close friends that often center around hard knocks tales of struggle, perseverance or in the case of the album’s third track “Wishing Well,” patience and personal growth.
Describing the song as a story describing the thought process of square-pegging a round hole and thinking that if you force hard enough you’ll get something to fit that’s not supposed to and won’t properly no matter what you do, whether it be with a relationship (as the song references or any other scenario (“You want her for something / Go on give it hell / Keeping throwing your pennies / Down that dry wishing well”).
“The lesson from the song is that you can try it as much as you want to make an impossible situation work but it’ll never put water in the well,” said Handelman.
From learning not to force things to finding out what does work, “Wishing Wells” moves into “Splitting Stones,” a song of self-discovery about living and learning to find out what your purpose in life is, because as Handelman and Eagle put it “We all ain’t born pretty / We all ain’t born hard / We’re just born splitting stones / ‘Till we find out who we are / Still ain’t found out who we are.”
Handelman’s connections to the aforementioned Kickin’ It On The Creek re-emerge on the album’s mid-point “Love I’ll Never Find,” a duet—something he admitted he’s long wanted to do—performed with Central Kentucky artist Abby Hamilton, whom Handelman first met last fall at the event. The song pulls at the heartstrings as Handelman begins by singing about a guy and gal trying to make their relationship work, despite knowing deep down that it never will because he’s not in the right place in his life to make it work out.
Hamilton’s elegant warble, singing from the perspective of the woman Handelman is longing for, then takes hold of second verse as she sings of exploring her own path in life with him not a part of it (“He stayed drunk in East Montana / She wandered down to San Antone”) before Handelman jumps back in, joining her for the heartbreaking chorus “You said you would be leaving / And I thought I wouldn’t mind / But I’m hanging on to every God damned word you said / Looking for a love I’ll never find” about both longing for and looking back on past conversations where things went wrong. Handelman then takes back the reigns for the song’s final verse, singing about seeing her again after his time spent in the bardo, a Tibetian state of consciousness similar to purgatory, that he knows she’ll pass directly through due to her purity (“I’m not racing towards the bardo / That’s a place you’ll never see”).
“Abby has such a soft and harmless vibe about her that I thought it’d be a good juxtaposition to smooth out the rougher edges that I have, not just vocally when I sing but also just with who I am as a person,” said Handelman.
The duet sets acts as a segue into a dark second half of Until This Point, led by the equally somber but drastically different sounds of “Lonesome Ride”—a fictional, Butch Cassidy-esque tale of a cowboy on the road running from something as he searches for his way home (“A wanted man across three states / wasn’t blind to his own fate / he kept a picture of sweet Rose upon his breast”)—the honky-tonky, blue-collar blues of “Salt” (But if it takes some falling to restock my salt / I’ll jump clean off this cliff / Let it tear me apart”) and “Broken Ground,” a narrative about a family struggling to support themselves with a famished farm that opts to set it all ablaze rather than fight to make it work any longer (“Take the kids and load the truck / Leave the rest behind I’ll light it up / We’ll tell them we were across state lines / Keep telling ourselves we’ll be just fine”).
For the latter Handelman is again joined by Hamilton on backup vocals as he documents the family’s unsuccessful big at homesteading, instead having to resort to the father pawning his guitar and his wife selling her momma’s ring to make it through last Spring’s drought. Matters don’t get better for them as they end up having to work three jobs to keep the banks at bay, leading them to sneak outside at night after their kids fall asleep to pray to a better harvest. After those pleas go unanswered, the husband in wife instead proclaim that“We’re leaving this house full of broken dreams / And I’m filling the cracks up full of Kerosene.”
The project then takes a drastic turn fro the rock bottom of feeling of “Broken Ground” to the peaceful message of closing track “My Rifle, My Pony & Me,” a Dean Martin cover about a cowboy (perhaps the one depicted in “Lonesome Ride?”) coming home from a long time on the road, ready to settle down and be at peace. Handelman is again joined by Eagle for the track, which is accompanied by instrumentals and stirrup clicking sounds that help to place the listener directly atop the pony depicted on the song as they head toward home as the two draw the song (and album) to a close, singing “No more cows to be roped / No more strays will I see / ‘Round the bend she’ll be waiting / For my rifle, my pony and me.”
The song acts as a fitting end to the first full-length musical chapter in Handelman’s post-Army life, and if it’s any indication it will be far from his last. Aside from being a true American hero, Handelman’s blue collar work ethic, humbleness and story of personal growth as documented in Until This Point are lessons that all of us can look to for inspiration to be better people, both to ourselves and one another, during today’s increasingly difficult and polarizing times.
You can order Until This Point at paulhandelmanmusic.com.
Padre Paul Handelman Until This Point track list
- Intro To Gypsy Home
- Gypsy Home
- Last Time
- Wishing Well
- Splitting Stones
- Love I’ll Never Find
- Lonesome Ride
- Broken Ground
- My Rifle, My Pony & Me