By Jonah Covell
Let’s make something abundantly clear - this record is above and beyond what the legions of 19-year old boys who can cover a few Childers songs could produce. But when counted against the legends and shakers emerging from the Appalachian woodwork, Dark Black Coal simply doesn’t match the same notable level.
1. Good ol' Boys with Bad Names
2. The Flood (written by Cole Chaney)
3. Man's Gotta Eat
4. Dark Black Coal
5. Mountain Queen
6. Kentucky Sky
7. Coal River
8. Far From Here
9. 1952 Vincent Black Lightning (written by Richard Thompson)
10. Uneven Ground
At the age of 17, Logan Halstead wrote a song that many men twice his age could only dream of penning. It achieved more success than their wildest dreams, amassing a current count of 6.1 million views on Radio West Virginia’s Youtube channel. Now 19, Halstead has assembled his debut. Dark Black Coal doesn't lack promise, but that title track, with its self-awareness and invocation of coal as an angry god, remains Haltead’s best by far.
The album doesn’t start too strong. ‘Good Ol’ Boys With Bad Names’ thrills for a moment but never becomes anything more than a straightforward drug song. The coal songs begin with ‘Man’s Gotta Eat’, which keeps the intensity but lacks the powerful imagery that defines Tyler Childers or Cole Chaney’s hardscrabble paeans. This is the start of a pattern for Halstead, who churns out a series of strophic songs that are full of passion but light on nuance or detail.
Chaney’s Mercy thrived by showing the entirety of coal communities, not just mining men. His songs featured praying families, celebrations and working mothers. Halstead limits his narrative to hardscrabble men. The women who feature here tend to be grieving mothers, (‘Far From Here’) leavers, or idealized lovers who he regrets “never holding close” but also is “set on not letting go” (‘Kentucky Sky’).
Halstead’s band back him well, but you find yourself wishing producer Lawrence Rothman had leaned into his bag of tricks to push Haltsead’s sound in a freer direction. When the writing gets a little weird, such as the slightly psychedelic closing track, new light and perspective seeps in, with Halstead pondering a spaceship string band.
Zach Bryan, Cole Chaney, and now Halstead have proven it’s not impossible to sound like Tyler Childers, but it may be near so to sing like him. In his most powerful moments Childers will stretch out syllables with a southful yowl that could scare the pants off James Brown. Halstead’s voice has a similar timbre and raw tone to the Food Stamps’ leader, but his measured delivery is much more akin to a younger Arlo McKinley, who guests on a verse in ‘Uneven Ground’, adding a lived-in weariness with his own shaky warble.
Let’s make something abundantly clear - this record is above and beyond what the legions of 19-year old boys who can cover a few Childers songs could produce. It’s also admirable that Halstead chose to stay solo and work on his own writing, instead of teaming up with a few (or few dozen) co-writers and putting out something inauthentic to capitalize on his viral fame.
But, when counted against the legends and shakers emerging from the Appalachian woodwork, Dark Black Coal simply doesn’t match the same notable level. Halstead gives himself a narrower angle at a smaller canvas, and can’t quite find the color of his older contemporaries. He may well release a great album someday, perhaps even someday soon, but this isn’t yet it.
Dark Black Coal is out now via Thirty Tigers