As excited as Dave Coleman is about the August 19, 2016 release of Pushed to the Side (Vaskaleedez Records), the fifth full-length album by his Nashville roots-rock trio the Coal Men, he’s also harboring an unusual fear: that the story of “three solid dudes trying to make really honest, genuine music” isn’t sexy enough to pique journalists’ fancy.
Please, Mr. Coleman, have a little faith. Truth is, there are plenty of angles here, including several in these excellent songs (which we shall explore in a bit, perhaps starting with the sad electric twang of “Faithless Eyes”). But it’s not as if the Coal Men’s history lacks for hooks. For starters, guitarist/vocalist Coleman and co-founding drummer/vocalist Dave Ray have been together 17 years; Coleman’s also played with artists including Matthew Ryan, Jessi Alexander and a young Taylor Swift. Bassist Paul Slivka, who joined five years ago, gained fame with Tommy Conwell & the Young Rumblers; he’s worked with Tony Joe White, Tommy Womack, Amanda Shires and Elizabeth Cook, among others. Most Tuesdays, he appears at the Family Wash with his wife, Cole, host of the “Short Sets” songwriter series. Coleman’s a regular.
And a band mentored by both John Prine and Todd Snider must have plenty of anecdotes about those experiences (even if some must remain, um, unreported). Prine helped distribute the band’s Bob Delevante-produced debut, 2004’s Nowhere’s Too Far, on his Oh Boy label; Snider pushed their 2013 album, Escalator, via his Aimless Records, then took them out on tour. They’ve also opened for the Avett Brothers, Darrell Scott and Chris Knight, among others.
Then there’s that Delevante link: in the ’90s, the Delevantes were at the forefront of the burgeoning Americana movement. Coleman, now producing at his own Nashville studio, Howard’s Apartment, recently shared a full-circle moment by helping Bob Delevante produce his new album there; he also plays on it with Ray and E Street Band bassist Garry Tallent. Coleman and Delevante also co-wrote Pushed to the Side’s sweet “Stones River.” “He’s been a father figure to me, teaching me a lot about how to treat people and handle the music business,” Coleman says. “That song is a metaphor of that kind of connection.”
Another hero, Buddy Miller, is also an advocate. Early in Coleman’s career, he played bass in his guitar teacher Duane Jarvis’ band, which opened a Buddy and Julie Miller tour; after Buddy became music director of the TV show Nashville, an Escalator track landed in an episode. Sons of Anarchy also featured two Coal Men songs, and their “Farther Find Me Now” heightened a key moment in the reality show The Deadliest Catch.
It’s just watery coincidence, however, that the band makes seven Key West trips a year for week-long residencies at the famed Hog’s Breath Saloon, a nearly 12-year tradition that began with an invitation from the Mavericks’ Paul Deakin and Robert Reynolds. The trio tracked Pushed to the Side during a stay on Florida’s tip, at Lance Taylor’s Southernmost Studio. “We were playing really well together, very much in sync,” says Coleman, who produced. “We were also pretty exhausted from those four-hour sets. I think that helped us settle into these atmospheric and moody tunes.”
They’re atmospheric and moody, all right; their protagonists forlorn, displaced, drifting. Coleman wrote them solo or with co-authors including Stephen Simmons, Seth Timbs and Jeff Wickland — a lover of Southern Gothic tales who shares credit for the lost souls of “Willy Jett,” “Lilly Hurst” and “Travis.” Their lonely spirits hover throughout the album. “It’s not a concept record,” Coleman explains, “but the narratives of being pushed to the side, of being on the fringe or alienated; they’re part of the story of the record.” That includes the Nashville experience itself, as intimated in “The Payoff,” a faster-pulsed twanger about trying to break through in a town where too many people make music for the wrong reasons.
Cynicism also infuses much of “The Singer (in Louisville),” which Coleman based on a story Womack wrote for Based On: Words, Notes and Art From Nashville, a book/CD collection of stories, songs and images inspired by one another. Coleman produced the music (contributors include Phil Madeira, Griffin House, David Mead and Brooke Waggoner) and knew the electric friction of the Coal Men’s “The Singer” belonged on Pushed to the Side.
The Bakersfield-nodding “Speeding Like a Demon,” which Coleman calls “total hillbilly,” conveys the flip-side “comical craziness” of road life. “It’s our homage to Jason & the Scorchers, taking traditional country but revvin’ it up in a three-piece rock ’n’ roll band that’s influenced as much by Hendrix as Hank or Webb Pierce.”
A beloved van serves as the metaphoric vehicle in “Depreciate,” which ponders fate with an understated jazz/twang. “It’s really about growing older gracefully, and trying to find your self worth,” Coleman admits. “That’s part of what this band has tried to do. We’ve always been committed to being who we are and not chasing trends.”
Though Escalator featured A-list Nashville talent, Coleman avoided guest stars this time to focus on production for the trio. Half of the tracks contain only vocal overdubs; others received slide guitar, pedal steel and similar shadings back at his home studio. “I wanted to embrace the air; there’s moments where there’s just color, like a triangle note. I tried to be deliberate, to play the right part for the song.” He says. “That’s my mantra.”
An expressive baritone vocalist (he claims Tony Joe White as an influence), Coleman also loves baritone guitar, which he applies to great effect on the title track. Its snaky tempo sets a groove that drives lyrics bound to break the hearts of sensitive listeners. But the album’s dark moments are buoyed by tunes like “Fast Rider,” a sexy, funky ode to his wife.
“We’re just telling stories,” Coleman says. “And it felt good to tell these.”