After all of his years making music, Saints Eleven's Jeff Grossman says his proudest highlight comes from the band's new record Coming Back Around. That's because celebrated songwriter and producer Walt Wilkins took the reins.
In many ways, Wilkins' songwriting magic rubs off on Grossman and the rest of the group.
Grossman met Wilkins at the famous Billy Bob's in Fort Worth during a function. "I finally got the nerve to say, 'Hey man what does it take to get the Walt Wilkins to produce my album?"
Grossman sent Wilkins a few phone recordings and impressed Wilkins enough to secure him as a producer. In June, they got to work.
The resulting 11-song record bears a certain grittiness underlined by its sincerity. Grossman's uniquely punk-country vocals take center stage on every tune. And most of the time, it feels like the right decision. Though Grossman says the process for this record was the same as the band's previous two, there's a noticeable jump in focus on Coming Back Around.
That could just be attributed to his growth (he hopes) as a songwriter, too.
Lyrically, Grossman focuses on both family and heartbreak. Songs like "For Those That Came," which imagines an autobiographical funeral of sorts, kind of straddles both. "Almost Home" is a sentimentally sweet tune that anybody who spends time away from family can easily resonate with.
Saints Eleven shines brightest when they come a bit unhinged and go a little dangerous. A great example of that is the song "Strange Round Here." A devious little tune with a killer guitar hook (and a killer conclusion).
"That's a true story," Grossman says. "I was doing a construction job about 15 years ago, and one of the guys who worked for the general contractor was married. But he hooked up with a girl at a bar by the job site and got her pregnant."
In an effort not to spoil the ending, give the song a listen for yourself. But there's an obvious allure to listening to songs with such a "true story" slant.
The band also pays homage to the heartbreak tunes of yore in "Heartbreak Songs," which is easily the most "country" song on the record and should play well with the traditionalists. It doesn't quite hit as hard as other material on the record, but it doesn't feel out of place, either.
That's because Saints Eleven found themselves in a slightly different place for this record. And it's (as the title suggests) returning to the music they grew up with. Perhaps some of that also comes from getting to play legendary Hill Country venues like Gruene Hall and Cheatham Street Warehouse recently. The resulting sound could best be leveraged as Americana with heavy bluegrass undertones.
Lots of slide, banjo and fiddle. And yet somehow the production feels notably sparse. Which, as a unit, provides a certain cohesiveness to the whole thing. While it may also be interesting to hear Grossman accompanied by more layers and textures, the production certainly doesn't abandon the overall aesthetic of the record.
Wilkins and his wife even join in on some of the "ooh's" and "aah's" on the record. That was a first for the band, and only hinted at what might be if they continue to expand their red dirt sound. Though this ain't their first rodeo, it's nice to see a group of seasoned musicians striving to expand and improve their sound.