DUSTIN LEE – On My Way Back Home
(2009 Rockit Records)
Ever since Thomas Wolfe said “You can’t go home again,” it has been held as truth. Thing is, he never said anything about how you go back home. Milwaukee resident Dustin Lee chose to take his journey in song. On his debut CD, Lee travels back to Iowa and his hometown of Fort Madison in a series of vignettes that paint a charming picture of small-town life. Even the instrumentals, “Hawkeye Prairie Heartbeat” and the unnamed hidden track, evoke images of wide open spaces and an unhurried way of life. Predominantly it’s an enjoyable stroll, though by the time On My Way Back Home reaches its final track near the one-hour mark, I find myself wishing he would pick up his feet and get a move on already. As picturesque as rural America can be, it also gets a little boring after awhile.
Lee’s expressive voice—part George Strait, part Slaid Cleaves—conveys his songs with honest conviction. His is the only voice you hear, on both lead and backing vocals, with two exceptions. The first is Kathy Sabby’s lightweight purr on “The Great Flood,” while the second is much more familiar. Even though he’s been in Milwaukee for only a couple of years, Lee has obviously made friends with the right people. Native son Peter Mulvey plays guitar and sings on the self-affirmation anthem “I’m Alright,” and his comforting baritone is instantly recognizable. In line with the simple, folksy nature of the songs, the instrumentation stays simple. For the most part, it’s just Lee on acoustic and John Thomas on bass and electric. Only the title track has any significant percussion, and then it’s just a simple shaker and hand drum rhythm, while the “keyboards” on that track consist predominantly of a single plinking note.
Even though the subject matter tends toward the clichéd, the songs usually avoid becoming as tired as their templates. In contrast to songs like “The Wreck of the Old 97,” the actual accident in the railroad tragedy “My Judgment Day” is only a hinted-at afterthought, as it focuses more on the emotions of the narrator and the wife and child left behind. The natural disaster of “The Great Flood” barely figures into the song even though it turned “my fields into the sea.” There’s an emotionless resignation in his assessment that “round here there’s no complaining, we just do what we’ve gotta do.” “Small Town” praises its subject on the surface but almost seems dishonest. “It’s a mystery to me,” he sings, “why anybody would want to leave,” yet that is exactly what he did.
As far as Iowa songwriters go, Lee has a ways to go before he reaches the level of the state’s most famous folkie, Greg Brown, but On My Way Back Home has him pointed in the right direction.