Life has a way of kicking when you're down. But it can also reach out and help pull you out of a rut. Life can be fickle and peculiar. One moment, you're lost and the next you've come back into the light. It's rewarding and relentlessly cruel all at once. On his full-length debut album Still Feel Lucky, singer-songwriter Ben Danaher explores the constant shift of life's circumstances and deals with the pain and strife that comes with the loss of loved ones.
Danaher's brother Kelly was murdered seven years ago. He was shot by a neighbor who was upset by the noise brought on by a birthday party Kelly and family were throwing for his then three-year-old daughter. The gunman ended up shooting three people before being apprehended by authorities. Two years later, Danaher's father Bob, a songwriter himself, passed away while battling stage four cancer.
"You can take it one of two ways," Danaher tells Wide Open Country. "You can either dwell on the sorrow or try and move on. A lot of times, people can recognize that struggle and you tend to use that as an identity or as a crutch. I think I fell into that for a while. I expected the sympathy."
"I get lost and wander off but I always end up coming back around. And it's all because I got my father's blood," sings Danaher on "My Father's Blood." It's one of many poignant moments on Still Feel Lucky. Written with Erik Dylan, Danaher delivers an incredibly vulnerable and personal piece. Much like Guy Clark's "The Randall Knife," the contemplative "My Father's Blood" finds Danaher righting the ship. He finds true north once again.
"Some of it had to get out and I didn't know it had to," says Danaher. "I had a lot of cowrites scheduled so going into these writes, a lot of them ended up being the first time I ever talked about it with people. 'My Father's Blood' was one of those. When I got with Erik, it was our first write. It's weird. I hadn't processed a lot of that with my family."
The writing process can often be a cathartic process. It's understandably been one for Danaher. Another shining example is the new album's closer "Over That Mountain," which was written about his late brother Kelly. It's misty-eyed and gospel-tinged. It finds Danaher delivering one of his most stirring vocal performances on the album. His powerful rasp reaches out and is as strong and steady as it is shaking and on the verge of breakdown.
"I wrote 'Over That Mountain' with Chris Gelbuda," says Danaher. "We just got to talking about what had happened and it went from there. I think it's natural to put it on a page. When that happens, it's the most honest channel to a listener."
The Huffman, Texas native shines brightly on the powerful "My Father's Blood" and "Over That Mountain," but not because of struggles that come with tragedy and loss. They're strong because of Danaher's maturing perspective and solemn understanding.
It's understandably a flood of mixed emotions for anyone. It's natural to feel angry, bitter, despondent and so forth. But it's Still Feel Lucky's redemptive quality that makes it a mighty force. Ultimately, it's an album of hope. You hear it echo out on the soaring flagship title track, the delicate "A Little While," and the affable "Getting Over Someone."
It's simple and plainspoken truths like "Still Feel Lucky's" "the truth finds you no matter where you've been" and "Getting Over Someone's" "sometimes your deepest sorrow lets you know you're alive" that resonate and make their marks. They're much-needed reminders that help replenish the soul.
A trio of Kristen Reilly cowrites--"Time Never Moves Slower," "Getting Over Someone" and "Silver Lining"--make up the back half of Still Feel Lucky. There's a warm beam of light that cascades over. There's a soulful John Fullbright-esque cadence to Danaher's tone and pace. It's a raw and earthy richness that sees an unhurried Danaher lead while gorgeous piano, heavenly fiddle and piercing electric guitar follow suit.
"I met with four or five producers," says Danaher. "Everyone was really expensive. I then met with Michael Webb. He was living across the street from me at the time. I was showing him songs and he was getting really excited. We started going through YouTube clips of full band versions of songs. He asked, 'why don't you just hire these guys?'"
It seems obvious now, but part of what gives Still Feel Lucky its edge is Danaher recording with his touring band. It's not that they're rough interpretations of Danaher's songs. But there's certainly a rough warmness that feels familiar and lived in. They're not slick or too refined. They feel like the heat coming off a winter's fire and the first sips of a freshly brewed pot of coffee.
While much of Still Feel Lucky finds Danaher offering graceful sentiments and hard-won wisdom, he still finds time to deliver booming anthems like the Maren Morris cowrite "Hell or Highwater" or the wry and bluesy "Jesus Can See You," a cowrite with Drew Kennedy and Josh Grider. There's a mean streak to them that only comes with heartbreak.
"There's songs about my dad and my brother," says Danaher. "They're obviously heavy. But there's breakup songs in there too. It was kind of a collection of four or five years of coping with different things. That wasn't always as obvious as your brother or dad passing. But it was dealing with failing relationships during that period of time too."
The character sketches of "Silver Screen," and "Fred and Jonell" are picturesque and cinematic with attentive and sharp detail. Danaher is precise, deftly observant and dialed in throughout.
More than anything, Danaher guides us on Still Feel Lucky. He leads us through some of the most trying times of his young life with a thoughtful and caring touch. He shows us how to grow and move on while knowing what to pick up and bring along for the journey. Still Feel Lucky is the hope needed for the long haul.
Danaher's new record Still Feel Lucky is available today, Sept. 7.