Ben Jarrell: Troubled Times
Johnny “Take This Job and Shove It” Paycheck and Jerry “Eastbound and Down” Reed are two names in music that everyone knows, and it is not a wonder or far drawn comparison when asked which performers inspired him the most, those were Ben Jarrell’s answers. When watching their live performances, they emanate a similar vibe as they show who they are through their earnest and honest approach to sharing their music on the stage.
Ben was gracious enough to stop painting for an hour to speak to me. At first, after finding out that Ben is also a creative visual artist, I thought he might be painting something with oil on canvas… but no, he was doing what folks do and sprucing up his house in Nashville. After a long day, he sat down and we had the coolest conversation about his cover art, and the story behind him and his songs.
Growing up in Dothan, Alabama and picking up the guitar to teach himself to play at the age of eight, he observed life through the lens of a musician from an early age. His mother was a talented pianist for their church, and he really started honing his skills on the acoustic and electric guitars in his early teens. He listened to a variety of musical genres during that time, and his songwriting inspirations reflect that clearly. From Warren Zevon to Alabama to Waylon to the Eagles, you can hear their influences throughout his lyrics and melodies on both his first 5 song self-titled acoustic EP, as well as on his first full length Album, “Troubled Times.” The album was recorded at Southern Grounds Studio, produced and engineered by Preston Tate White (producer/engineer), Todd Whitaker (executive producer), and Evan Wilber (assistant engineer), and then released by Country Roots Records earlier this year.
Not many artists can claim this, but Ben conceptualized and created the cover of his album. He built the mixed media diorama about the size of a stove top that represents different aspects of his songs, and the whole concept was inspired by the part where Billy meets the girl in the bar from the title track. If you know his music, and look closely at each aspect, you will see the “Easter eggs” he has hidden… like that the Hot Wheels cars he used are very specific, a 1967 white Camaro with red stripes, the name on the trailer, the dirt… all of it have meaning. When photographer Ed Rode took the photo, they made the fog from dry ice in a mason jar. As an artist, Ben believes that the abstract nature helps to reset our brains, and his artistry in music will do that, too.
The tone of this album varies depending on the story Ben is telling. Sometimes it is celebration, sometimes it is soul-kicking, and sometimes it will shake you. The first song of the album, “Troubled Times in a Tribal Town” tells the true story of Billy and how his idle hands end up with the law finding a girl buried in a shallow grave. He meets her in a bar over several nights, wins her trust, takes her for a drive after dark and kills her. When he is arrested, still wearing his bloody shirt, he says, “I made it quick for anything that’s worth.” Like many good murder ballads go, the crime is tragic and the criminal is unrepentant, even as he was about to receive his death sentence, he asserted, “Sorry, I’m not sorry, at least you gave me something to do today.” By the way, the murder took place in Alabama, which means “tribal town” in Muskogee Creek Indian language.
“Gearjammer Blues” is an ode to truck drivers everywhere as he sings about how it can be a truly lonely existence, but in a rather upbeat way. He describes all too familiar scenarios reflecting life on the road, the challenges the lifestyle presents, the exhaustion of hauling loads across the country and the desire to find the way home, “It ain’t the life you choose, no... it’s the life that chooses you.” Knowing my friends who drive, this song rings very true to them.
“Marissa” starts in a slow, sad way that you would expect from a slow, sad ballad about fighting through the struggle of addiction, trying to make it, getting clean for a while, but not making it. Ben watched a documentary called “Heroin: Cape Cod, USA” which followed young addicts deep in the Opioid crisis, and one of the people they followed was Marissa. She struggled physically and psychologically in the grips of addiction, and she died of an overdose before the filming was over. The film is dedicated to her memory, and Ben’s song, co-written with his friend, Garrett Miller, is another way to share her story. They were profoundly affected by her plight, and you can hear that when he sings the refrain, “the waves that crash down...ocean of life... it’ll toss you around.”
“My Old Friend” is the only all acoustic song on the album, and Ben was inspired to co-write it with Preston Tate White after the death of his song writing buddy, his grumpy old cat Dexter. Dexter was Ben’s girlfriend’s cat, and didn’t like anyone else but him. He was there for his practice sessions and jams, and I imagine he was the approving ear of many songs, both recorded and not yet recorded. I totally felt that sorrow when he sang, “Late in the evening, shadows cross the ceiling and realize you’re not here anymore.” The loss of a pet you love is just terrible, and this song, with it’s sweet guitar, thoughtful lyrics and melody, is just such a kind way to remember him. My dogs are my family, too, so I totally get it. This song is relatable to anyone who has experienced any kind of loss and will definitely tug at your heart when you listen to the final notes at the end, “Its so long farewell, goodbye, my old friend…”
“Big Iron Train” co-written with best friend, Bendan Mannion, is a grinding and rocking tune about escaping from a failed relationship after lies have been told and he decides he isn’t going to do it again, “I’ve been told some dirty lies and sometimes it gets me cryin’...Now I ain't gonna be lied to no more.” Who hasn’t wanted to jump on a train to leave bullshit behind at some point? When he jumps off in ‘San Antone’ he meets a woman where it looks like history will just repeat itself, so before it does… he jumps back on and declares he’s “headed westbound on that big iron train...and I’m never going back.. back again!”
“Black Helicopters” has a drumbeat that appears throughout the song that, if you play it nice and loud, can make you feel like there are actual helicopters circling overhead. This is a satirical tale based on a person Ben actually knew who was a “prepper” and had that as his world view. In the song, the protagonist was told to stand down by the law… but you follow him as he ducks in the bushes and hides out in the trees, claiming everything is covered in aluminum foil and they won’t get him. You can almost see the defiant fist shaking in the air showing his disdain for government control, while simultaneously challenging them to come and get him. “Then I got a letter from the government saying stand down...I wanna see what you got hidden in that compound...and that’s when I started to hear them late at night…”
“The Flyer” was inspired by a news report of a girl who had gone missing. It starts with a slow melody and his vocals bring you into the story as you hear the moments he happens upon the flyer about the missing… then the guitar jams just start as we find out who, or in this case what is missing: rock n’ roll. I loved that build up, and the lyrics, “Have you seen her, she speaks with a certain sound... worried she may have gotten lost somewhere in the underground. Some folks forgot her name many years ago, I want to hear her voice again.. oh, how I miss her so.” Then Ben’s slow speaking narrative punctuates the loss of the spirit of rock n roll before the rocking end lights up with the repeated harmony with Emily Earle’s powerful voice backing throughout, “If you see her, just call out...her name is rock and roll!”
“Highway Whine” is one that I was singing along to before I finished my first listen through. It is just one of those feel-good, road tripping songs I want to turn up, sing at the top of my lungs while driving down the road with my windows rolled down! I had my most relatable and visceral response to his lyrics, “Got a suitcase full of hopes and dreams and a rearview full of memories in a car that’s never let us down before…” as I’ve just returned from a soul searching, life altering road trip myself with those same feelings in my head. The song is full of feel-good lyrics sung by Ben with backing vocals from Ben Donovan that race into fun melodies, and I have put it at the top of my “Road Trip Jams” playlist for my next trip...which will be soon because, well, I “gotta get on that old highway…”
“Daddy’s Prison Radio” slows the album down as Ben sings a thoughtful autobiographical song about his father. It starts with him telling the story of his father and his pathway to prison in a heartfelt speech. The melody kicks in with soulful backing vocals from Amanda Fields and the rest is told through his eyes and how much it actually sucks thinking about those missed opportunities between father and son, especially now that he has found success in his music. “I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again… he’s got a piece of me, and I’ve got a piece of him.” and hoping that he can hear him sing on the prison radio. The more I listened to it, the more it actually broke my heart… it is a tearjerker for sure.
The final song on the album starts with the sound of a lighter flick and moves quickly into a pro-weed anthem. “Colorado Bound” and it’s pace made me feel like I was in the movie “Smokey and the Bandit” riding shotgun in a 1977 black and gold Trans Am with the police in hot pursuit as we make our way to Colorado. He sings about how he can get rid of frustrations when he packs them into a dime-sized bowl, which echoes many people’s feelings about the legalization of marijuana for personal use. The last words sung on the album are, “I can get high and I can get by on my own…” and then Ben heads back to the olden days where credits were spoken and he acknowledges every single contributor on the album in a unique way while the music is still playing and takes us to the end.
Give this album a spin or ten and see if it doesn’t grab you. It has lyrics that will make you think and the rhythm and beat that harken back to the spirit of classic country, just now with the modern feel of where country music is going with many amazing artists like him. Ben and his band, Mike Daly (pedal steel), Stephen Daly (lead guitar), Kevin Black (bass) Taylor Powell (drums), and Presten Tate White (keys), have set a new standard with this album, so check out his social media and see where he will share his songs and stories next…