By Matt Wickstrom
Fallsburg, Ky.’s David Prince, better known as Laid Back Country Picker, doesn’t waste any time letting listeners in on what he’s setting out to do on his latest album Kingsport, exclaiming “We let out of Kingsport in the middle of the night / We was playin’ country music / And treatin’ people right” at the start of the album’s lead and title track. Through the 11 track album Prince does just that and then some, telling stories ranging from growing up in Eastern Kentucky to the outsourcing of U.S. factory jobs and looking for love in all the wrong places, all to the tune of 60’s and 70’s era country and southern rock arrangements.
Recorded by David Ferguson (Chris Stapleton, Tyler Childers, Margo Price) and Sean Sullivan at The Butcher Shoppe in Nashville and produced in conjunction with Wayne Graham’s Kenny Miles (Padre Paul Handelman, Senora May, 49 Winchester), the album features arrangements orchestrated by country music star and fellow Eastern Kentucky native Tyler Childers, whom Prince first met as a student in one of the government and economics classes he taught, and continues to teach, at Lawrence County High School.
Other featured performers on Kingsport include Russ Pahl (Toby Keith, Joy Williams, Marcus King) along with Childers’ own do-everything man Jesse Wells on fiddle and banjo and J.T. Cure (Chris Stapleton) on bass. Also contributing to the album are regular band members Hayden Miles (Wayne Graham) on drums and Theresa “Honey” Prince (Luna & The Mountain Jets) and Shady Boggs—AKA Tyler Childers—on background vocals.
The album’s subject material later delves into Prince’s childhood growing up in Eastern Kentucky on “Bonaparte” and “They Only Come Around.” On “Bonaparte,” the first of the two fiddle happy songs, Prince sings about the ingenuity of his father to make the best out of the tools at his disposal including putting a truck transmission on a 1957 Cadillac and regularly performing “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” a fiddle tune composed by Kentuckian William H. Stepp in 1937, that his father instead played on banjo. The song goes on to describe that no matter how rough his upbringing may have appeared on the outside, that Prince “probably had it better than you think.”
A similar theme sprouts up on “They Only Come Around,” as fuzzy guitar licks and a sweet and savory fiddle help to tell the story about noticing how over time people slowly move away from his Eastern Kentucky community, only ever coming back around to visit with their family still there around Christmastime. The story documents everyone from Prince’s uncle now in Bowling Green and his brother who moved to Detroit when Prince was 13 to others in the community who’ve left to “try to find work for a better day.”
The song then moves into Prince singing about how despite others moving away he has no intentions of doing so himself as he proclaims “I’m a zip code kid in a mail box town” before going on to explain that those who move away to the city often forget their country roots, saying “You might even think that we ain’t even trying / When you only come around around Christmastime” as sleigh bells jingle in the background.
Another song documenting a struggle facing Eastern Kentucky families is “John Henry,” a swampy story about the death of the American factory worker. The song tells the tale of John Henry, a prototypical factory worker who helps to lead unionization efforts within his job to prevent himself and others from losing their jobs to machines (“Machines they will fight you for the dollars that you earn / Ain’t no wheels gonna spin unless they make them turn”). The efforts fall short, with Henry eventually seeing jobs like his and others move elsewhere anyway (““I see your cities rusting up there by the lake / They sent your work overseas for the money they could make”) purely for the sake of profit by machine over employing and supporting the existing workforce.
The conclusion of “John Henry” catches Prince predicting a bleak future where all of the cheap foreign labor utilized in the name of expanding profits comes back to hurt the American worker—particularly technology as it continues to push the boundaries of privacy—singing “I see the day a coming / When they look inside your head / You won’t know which thoughts are yours or the ones they had instead.” Prince closes the song with one final, foreboding message of the future of the American worker if big businesses continue to give their work to the lowest bidder by saying “The slave becomes the master / John Henry is no more.”
On the heavier end of the spectrum, instrumentally speaking, are “Truck Stop Sam” and album closer “TV Preacher,” which feature arrangements leaning into the realms of southern rock and country-fried psychedelia rather than more traditionally rooted honky tonk. For “Truck Stop Sam” in particular, the song features instrumentals akin to the Luther Dixon and Al Smith penned classic “Big Boss Man” popularized by Jimmy Reed as Prince sings about a man who chases after every woman he sees despite already having one who loves him (“One good women loves you / But you tried to love them all”).
A monologue later interrupts the song—a moment that longtime Laid Back fans will recognize as a one of the artist’s signature telephonic moments—packed with references to a handful of artists of yesteryear including Frank Zappa (“My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama”), David Allan Coe/Johnny Paycheck (“Take This Job And Shove It”), Blue Oyster Cult (“Don’t Fear The Reaper”), The Beatles (“Hey Jude”) and Peter Frampton (“Do You Feel Like We Do”), among others. For the nod to Frampton—which closed the interlude—Prince even managed to mimic the artist’s signature talk box trick before guiding the song back to its original course.
The moment is one of many within Kingsport showing that Laid Back Country Picker not only talks the talk but actually walks the walk when he preaches about “playin’ country music and treatin’ people right.” The message of treating one another right is one we should all take to heart, particularly now as so many are struggling to stay healthy, employed and in a safe living situation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Purchase Kingsport at LaidBackCountryPicker.org.
Laid Back Country Picker Kingsport track list
- Country Jesus
- No Part Of Nothin’
- Truck Stop Sam
- They Only Come Around
- John Henry
- Girl That I Love
- Lester Plays It Straight
- Other Side Of Town
- TV Preacher