Just as every picture tells a story, so does a well-crafted song.
And when a music artist puts together an entire album of related tunes, the overall narrative becomes a tale the listener wants to hear from start to finish.
Like a book that you just can't put down, "Greetings From Lawrence County, Illinois" is a compelling musical peek into the many facets comprising life in the 374-square-mile farming region on the southeast border of the state.
Well-known Southern Illinois musician Stace England is part of the Red Hills Music Collective, a 16-person conglomeration of mostly Lawrence County musicians releasing their new album Friday via multiple digital platforms.
With engaging vocalists, talented instrumentalists and a charming variety of songs, the group has recorded 12 tunes of well-produced Americana that put a smile on my face and had me looking forward in anticipation to each successive track.
Although he's a Cobden resident, England grew up on a hog-and-grain farm in Lawrence County and still calls the area his spiritual home.
"It has a unique feel, rhythm and sound from the farm equipment, oil pump jacks, the flow of the Wabash and Embarras rivers and even a certain type of very Midwestern speech," England said. "We decided to try to answer the musical question, 'what does Lawrence County sound like?' and a bunch of songs came very quickly."
England's key collaborator is Guy Ash, patriarch of multi-generational musical group The Ash Family.
"Lawrence County is the kind of area with a small-town atmosphere," Ash said. "Kids can play and ride bikes around town without fear. You know your neighbors and can call on people if needed."
Along with his brother, Steve, Ash brought his adult son and daughter, Guy II and Nichole, to the project.
"My son has a great ability to listen to a song and capture the perfect sound and lead guitar track for it," Ash said. "Nichole has a beautiful, smooth voice that just captures the ear. She also plays guitar, piano, banjo and she did some harmony vocals as well."
England is no stranger to telling historical musical tales. The new album echoes his approach on "Greetings From Cairo, Illinois," which traced the city's history and features collaborations from musicians such as Americana and alt-country legend Jason Ringenberg.
"Finding my musical voice often happened around thematic records with historical overtones," England said. "For this album, there's an interesting story along the lines of how all everyone created the song tracks during the (COVID-19) pandemic. We also really tried to tune into the location with all our antennas out, so to speak, which is what we all did."
Beginning in July of last year and ending last February, the participants recorded song tracks in several different studios and locations, including inside a historic church. Mike Lescelius, of Misunderstudio in Murphysboro, is responsible for recording England's performances as well as the mixing and mastering of most album tracks.
"It’s always great to work with Stace, and the projects are always different," Lescelius said. "He has an endless stream of creativity, and I’m glad to be there at the place where he transcribes it."
Guy Ash is responsible for a large share of the Lawrence County project, playing seven different instruments, singing lead and harmony vocals and recording and mixing many of the songs.
"Growing up in the Lawrence County area, we would hear many of the old stories that these songs were taken from," Ash said. "Stace has a great talent for taking the history of those stories and putting them to music."
One of those songs is "Pisgah," which refers to the Pisgah Presbyterian Church, south of Bridgeport. The tune features both lead and harmony vocals — recorded inside the church — from country singer Debbie Rucker and an outstanding harmonica track played by Ash. The waltz serves as a love letter to rural churches, with lyrics stating that the "church looks a bit rugged, just like the cross."
The album opens with "Bridgeport," a song dripping with imagery of open fields, oil wells and a lifestyle off the beaten path, away from the fast lane. England sings "there's not a stone I'd rearrange in this old town, population 1,886."
"Three Dollar Corn" uses a tricky meter and double guitar leads to tell a tale of disappointing prices for Lawrence county farming commodities. England sings of "bank statements with red ink" and farmers who "can't make a living on three dollar (per bushel) corn."
Guy Ash turns in an impressive performance on "Lily of the Wabash Valley," singing the lead vocal and playing guitar, bass, keyboard, harmonica and drums. He also produced, recorded and mixed the song at his studio. With family members singing harmonies and playing lead guitar parts, the song speaks of a dream girl "dancing on the hillside, beauty touching everything she sees."
"Greetings From Lawrence County, Illinois" demonstrates a wonderful collaboration between England and his equally talented bandmates in an album that beckons listening to the entire well-crafted narrative.
The recording will be available on most digital music platforms beginning Friday, May 21. More information may be found at www.staceengland.com.
Gary Gibula is an SIU alum, musician, writer, editor and author of the Music Historicity columns.