Johnny Dowd contemplates the afterlife in his nostalgic, spiritual new single and video Is Heaven Real? — premiering exclusively on Tinnitist.
On the title track from his 25th full-length release, the inimitable Americana eccentric serenades you into the next life with a molasses-slow work of rustic, rough-hewn country-gospel fashioned from lazy honky-tonk piano, swirling churchy organ, melancholy violin and somber trombone — all topped with Dowd’s wistful thoughts on the true nature of heaven, voiced in his creaky, hickory-snap tones.
“There’s a place beyond the trees,” he begins. “Where everyone’s happy and free / It’s a place beyond the grave / Where all are masters, none are slaves.” After claiming that heaven is real because his daddy told him so, and acknowledging the fleeting beauty of live — “We say hello, and we leave” — Dowd recalls a bit of heaven on Earth: “You call it Oklahoma / I call it the promised land / That’s where I started my very first band / We had some fun but we drifted apart / We weren’t that good but we had a lot of heart.”
That may be. But it’s hard to believe they can top the crew Dowd recruited for the LP Is Heaven Real? How Would I Know? In addition to his longtime bandmates, drummer Jif Dowd (his sister) and guitarist Mike Edmondson, Dowd had a slew of ringers: Will Sexton, who co-produced and played guitar, and Amy LaVere, on bass and vocals, a touring couple who embody the Great American Songbook; Rick Steff (Lucero) on piano; Alex Greene (Reigning Sound) on organ and trombone; Jim Spake (Lucero, Alex Chilton) on reeds; Krista Lynne Wroten (Memphis Dawls) on fiddle and vocals; and Will McCarley and Shawn Zorn adding percussion.
Recorded at producer / Fat Possum Records honcho Bruce Watson’s Delta-Sonic Sounds, the album finds Dowd returning to his former, formative stomping grounds in Memphis. “I lived there from the time I was one to the time I was three or four,” Dowd says, “and I lived there again during high school.” The sounds of Memphis stayed with him through life, even as he grew up in Oklahoma and finally settled in upstate New York. And so, in 2022, he returned to the Bluff City to make what may be his most personal album to date. “I’ve always had a bunch of good bands,” he says. “But the kind of band that I had in Memphis for this album, sounding like something off Stax/Volt records? That’s the stuff that I grew up with, but I never recorded in that context at all. So it was like, ‘OK… This is it!’ ”
Leaning into the weathered old world of Dowd’s lyrics and voice, the band helped fashion a soundscape that’s as earthy as an Oklahoma field, as sweet and soulful as a Memphis doughnut shop, as edgy as walking the rails over a river bridge. Hear for yourself when Is Heaven Real? How Would I Know? escapes on Oct. 6.
Meanwhile, watch the video for Is Heaven Real? above, read more about the album HERE, watch my 2022 interview with Johnny Dowd HERE, and see if he’s for real on his website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Bandcamp.