Colorado-born songwriter Jackson Melnick’s debut album Abilene, releasing September 24th, masterfully intertwines activism, spirituality, and his acoustic roots. Melnick began busking around the age of ten, playing songs by John Denver, Bob Dylan, and Steve Earle, and today, he employs his songwriting ability to explore themes of the natural world, God, grief, and the human experience.
Kicking off the album is Melnick’s rendition of “John the Revelator”. Originally recorded by gospel blues master Blind Willie Johnson, Melnick’s version is true to the traditional, upbeat bluegrass sound of the upright bass, the mandolin, the banjo, the Dobro, and tight, clean vocal harmonies. Featured about halfway through the track are two captivating instrumental solos, one on banjo and one on mandolin. With added verses written by Melnick, the song carries a message of “love as salvation”.
Next up is “Trouble”, a track with softer, less revelrous sound, but still remaining true to the spirit of bluegrass by incorporating the traditional instruments used within the genre. This song was inspired by the plight of suicides of American farmers. Whether this is due to financial issues brought about by the growth of agribusiness and consumerism or the general societal ignorance of the work that goes into growing food, this is a real problem within our country that largely goes unaddressed. Melnick references this in the song’s lyrical content as well as its music video, in which he digs his own grave in the middle of a pasture.
Abilene’s third track is “South of My Soul”, a soft, emotional dedication to Melnick’s pious nature. This soft country-folk song is full of hope, appreciation, and devotion to a higher power. The track’s instruments all work together to create a beautifully cohesive support to Melnick’s sentimental vocals.
“San Diego” comes next, a song with a steady, walking bass line and a soft banjo. Crescendos ebb and flow into the song’s choruses, referencing the meaning behind the song itself. “San Diego” is inspired by Melnick’s receiving a text from someone he never got closure from while driving from Los Angeles to San Diego. This reconnection and redemption of love inspired his writing of the song, which has a mood that is vulnerable, hopeful, and human.
“Abilene”, the album’s fifth and titular track, is another one that maintains the integrity of the bluegrass genre and showcases Melnick’s storytelling ability through songwriting. Inspired by an interview with the late Guy Clark, as well as Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, the song’s lyrics could stand alone as spoken words without music.
Inspired by Melnick’s connection to nature and spirituality throughout his upbringing, “Spirit Mother” begins as a haunting examination of the changing seasons and the passage of time. The song slowly swells into a feel-good, major-key outro featuring Molly Parden on backing vocal harmonies. This track overall is very reminiscent of the sounds of Gregory Alan Isakov in the way that it is wistful, eerie, and full of awe of the natural world.
The album’s seventh track is “Raghse Zarrat”, a beautifully tragic song about grief and the love that is at its root. According to Melnick, the song is an adaptation of a Persian poem of the same name, which roughly translates to “dance of the atoms”. He takes inspiration from the poem in the song’s lyrics and built a song that is about grief, but also a song that contains the strange, melancholy comfort that can come with loss.
“San Diego Pt 2” has a deep bluegrass and Americana feel with just a tinge of blues for good measure. The song was written after the 2019 police killing of Elijah McClain in Aurora, Colorado. Instead of writing a song of anger and frustration, Melnick wrote a song of hope. He highlights McClain’s love for everyone, his how hope for a better world, and how these qualities shone through during the investigation process. It’s as if he wants McClain to be remembered in the same way he interacted with the world, full of hope, love, and innocence.
Written around the time of Yom Kippur, the album’s penultimate track, “I See You”, is Melnick’s testament to his admiration of God. The steady, high-energy track is all about God’s existence and omnipresence within nature and human beings.
Rounding out the record is “The Rhythm That Has No End”. Melnick wrote this song at the age of 17, previously only having written poetry. The song is free-spirited and is a great closer to the album, as it encompasses all of the genres that the album itself explores.
Abilene’s ten tracks all draw inspiration from the traditional bluegrass genre, but also incorporates elements of blues, country, and folk while placing Melnicks’s knack for lyrical storytelling at the forefront. Don’t be surprised if Jackson Melnick becomes a name you see more and more as the album begins to make its rounds, starting this Friday September 24th.