Music Review: Tom Pacheco’s ‘Swallowed Up in the Great American Heartland’

Swallowed Up in the Great American Heartland by Tom Pacheco

While some of this album’s early reviewers may have gone a bit overboard (one suggested that Tom Pacheco might be “the most important songwriter to come along in a dozen years”), the material on Swallowed Up in the Great American Heartland renders their zealousness understandable. Pacheco won’t be the next Dylan or Springsteen but this disc, boasting a crop of fine material and complementary backing by Red Rhodes, Chris Ethridge, Jim Keltner, and other veteran luminaries, marks him as an artist of intelligence, strength, and considerable promise.

Like such stylistically related writers as John Prine and Steve Goodman, Pacheco excels as a storyteller. Working with subject matter that, in less capable hands, might result only in cliches, he manages with laudable frequency to weave compelling, vivid tales. That most of them happen to be true is really beside the point; what matters is that, for the listener, they ring true.

“Song for Marilyn,” my favorite track on this LP, exemplifies Pacheco at his best. Its basic storyline—about a meeting with a now-married past lover—is as old as the hills. But Pacheco—who delivers earthy, heartfelt vocals, superbly employs colloquialisms, and uses the first person for both characters—builds a sense of immediacy that individualizes the tale.

In that tune’s potent conclusion and throughout many of the remaining tracks, Pacheco combines romantic idealism with disillusionment in a stance that proves as arresting as his storytelling technique. Describing a couple who meet in a singles bar and wind up “Dancing Closer to the Bedroom Door,” for instance, he avoids condescension yet evokes a sense of the relationship’s superficiality. Similarly, in the Woody Guthrie-like “The Land Will Roll On,” he maintains an almost blind faith while acknowledging the ravages of pollution.

The title cut, which hovers somewhere between Jack Kerouac and Jerry Jeff Walker, and “Jesse Tucker,” the true story of the singer’s uncle, both also evidence the intriguing duality of Pacheco’s outlook. On the one hand, he clearly feels an attraction to the “Great American Heartland”; he romanticizes its truck stops, all-night diners, and 20th Century pioneers and takes pride in our country’s traditional values. Yet greasers carry guns in the diners Pacheco describes; his truckers wind up in old-age homes; and “something is uneasy in the air.”

Not every track on the album packs the punch of the above-mentioned tunes. “To Sing a Country Song,” for example, weds a forgettable melody to superficial lyrics about the trappings of success. And “The Tree Song,” an if-these-walls-could-talk opus that an oak ostensibly delivers, is just plain silly.

But the lion’s share of this material proves good indeed. It brands Pacheco as a man worth listening to today and watching for tomorrow.

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