Like many American musicians, across vastly diverse backgrounds, cultures and genres, singer-songwriter Cory Chisel forged his first connection to the power of song through the music he heard – and made – in church. His father was a Baptist pastor, his mother played piano during services, and an upbringing surrounded by sermons and spirituals instilled in Cory the passion and portent of language and melody, and a fluency in the gospel’s rich vernacular of loss and redemption. He and his sister sang in the choir for years, and to this day, although his music exists completely within a secular context, Chisel feels a palpable connection between his own performing and the genuine theatrics of his father’s preaching. The spirit, indeed, is willing.
With his band, The Wandering Sons, this Appleton, Wisconsin-based prodigy has created a riveting debut, Little Bird, that lets forth a deep stream of insightful everyday poetry set against a spare, exquisitely rendered, Americana-saturated musical backdrop fusing roots rock, Delta blues, traditional country, ancient spirituals and more. There doesn’t seem to be a word or note too many, or too few, in any of the disc’s eleven original songs. The record emerges fully formed, and somehow familiar, as confident in its sonics as in its persistent echoes of existential grace and mystery.
And, while each track has its own distinct narrative, Little Bird is truly an album, a compelling journey from start to finish. The native writer inside of Chisel has conceived not a collection of short stories, but a deep first take on his version of the great American novel. In doing so, he’s literate in an eloquent and plainspoken way, with no shadow of pretense. His voice full of soul and longing, Chisel’s expressive vocals and the Sons’ loosely orchestrated, impeccable playing are the sound of our country’s all too quickly vanishing open spaces, both metaphorical and real – those places where the spirit, body and mind might rest to ponder, and grow from, the beauty and meaning of it all.
Chisel’s own wanderings began in Hawaii, where his father was stationed in the military when he was born. He’s a true son of the American heartland, though, migrating through the mid-West seven times before he turned eight, settling in Appleton eighteen years ago (where international touring with the acclaimed Appleton Boychoir gave him a first taste of the larger world). Cory also paints a vivid picture of Babbitt, his parents’ families’ homestead in Minnesota’s Iron Range, where he’s visited all his life: “My grandpa has nine brothers, everyone's a terrific guitar player, and half of them play harmonica too. Everything revolves around music.” Besides being fifteen minutes from Canada, Babbitt’s only an hour from Hibbing, MN, birthplace of fellow north country son Bob Dylan, a major influence. The proximate geography of their roots only underscores the obvious connection.
Other artists that inspired Chisel include Howlin’ Wolf, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Robert Johnson and Tom Waits, among the many greats he discovered poring through an uncle’s venerable record collection. On Little Bird, Cory’s amalgamation of these roots is aided and abetted by good friend and bassist/multi-instrumentalist Miles Nielsen, co-owner of the Rockford, IL studio Fuse, where the album was co-produced by Chisel, Nielsen and Mark Muraski. “We took an endless time to record, about a year, and tracked tons of songs” says Cory. “It was a huge investment for the studio and a great luxury for the band. Miles and Mark really thought if there was enough time to weed through it all, we’d have an actual record.”
Nielsen is also the son of Cheap Trick guitar virtuoso Rick Nielsen, a Chisel fan whose world-class playing is featured on Little Bird (“No Better”), as is that of Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos, who drives the beat on nine of eleven tracks. Featured as well is GRAMMY®-winning keyboardist Augie Meyers, co-founder of the Sir Douglas Quintet and the Texas Tornados. Most notable on Meyers’ extensive resume for Chisel, though, is his work on his absolute favorite Dylan album – Time Out Of Mind – and his favorite song on that classic LP, “Not Dark Yet.”
Meyers graces a number of selections on Little Bird including “Pale Blue Dress,” a lovely, stripped down soliloquy that’s also the tune that got the studio sessions going after Miles and Rick Nielsen first heard it. Cory recalls that after hours of tracking organ and piano parts for other songs, “Augie said, ‘OK, let me hear the one that made it all happen.’ He pulled out this tiny accordion and said, ‘I used this on your favorite song ever, so let’s do a duet now and bring those pieces of your life full circle.’ We tracked it together, and then I went out back and broke down. It was beautiful.”
Other standouts include “A Sinner’s Waltz,” an elegant, sprawling meditation on dashed expectations in the face of a crumbling world, and “Paint It Down,” a stirring, blues number about writer’s block that sounds inspired by anything but that affliction. The raw, acapella “These Four Walls,” “just came out like picking a carrot out of the ground,” and “New Orleans” is Cory’s gorgeous elegy to the city he never experienced before its Biblical-force storm, singing, “Never heard how her heart beat, but I hear it’s still there.” “In The Spring” is a deceptively soothing lullaby to a lost child, delivering the album’s title with the aching lament, “Don’t you little bird don’t cry.”
A super-tight backing band conjured up in the spirit of the indispensable Booker T. & the MGs, The Wandering Sons is a flexible collective of ace players uniting veterans like Nielsen, Carlos and Meyer with the best young musicians Chisel’s encountered in his journeys to date. Besides Miles Nielsen, the band’s line-up comprises: Adriel Harris (supporting vocals/piano/organ); Dan McMahon (guitar/accordion/multi instrumentalist); Charlie Kolteck (drums); and Adam Plamann (clarinet). “I’ve assembled them from other projects,” says Chisel, “from bands I’ve been fans of. They’ve all been on my wish list, and one by one, I’ve asked them to join. I’m honored they’re with the Wandering Sons.”
In 2007 Cory Chisel and The Wandering Sons grew their fan base through rigorous touring including opening spots for Jackson Browne and Brett Dennen. Immediately following their debut performance in Los Angeles Chisel was signed to a major label deal with RCA. Chisel has currently been working with producer Tony Berg (Beck, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club) and writers Jesse Harris (Norah Jones) and Dave Tozer (John Legend, Jay Z, Kanye West) on tracks for his forthcoming record.
In thinking back to his earliest incarnation as a performer, inside his father’s church, Cory says, “For me, it was always about the ability to feel connected to people. There’s such an enlightenment that can be found in those moments, not just from the spiritual aspect, but from the beautiful community sense of it. It’s definitely real, and I believe that’s why I’m here.”