Even in an Austin scene with no shortage of pickers and singers of all ages striving for their own form of honky-tonk authenticity, David Touchton manages to stand out. Not to discount the years of do-it-yourself effort, but part of his distinctiveness is a gift: a deep, resonant baritone twang, undoubtedly honed over a couple of decades’ worth of gigs but an inherent quality a lot of musicians would trade at least half their careers for. Landing somewhere between Cody Jinks’ crowd-pleasing rumble, Vern Gosdin’s old-school ache and fellow Austinite Chris Fullerton’s wild drawl, it gives Touchton’s compositions the gravity they deserve.
Touchton’s new release, Wishing Well, is a well-deserved culmination of sorts, the first full-length from a budget-conscious indie artist who’s had to stick to EPs and live recordings thus far. Touchton, to his credit, treats it like the big deal it is: there’s not a wasted moment on the album, tight at 10 songs with no discernible filler in the bunch. To some listeners it might seem stubbornly purist, with minimal production, little percussion aside from some attention-getting gong strikes on the intro and a decidedly downbeat thematic consistency. But then again, recent years have been kind to country/roots artists as diverse as Colter Wall, Zach Bryan and Tyler Childers framing their songs on their own stripped-down, pander-free terms, so Touchton’s LP debut shouldn’t be counted out as a potential breakthrough.
And for folks who meet these songs as they are, the rewards are rich. Wishing Well is a concept album of sorts, not necessarily in the narrative sense of a Red Headed Stranger but with a thematic and sonic consistency that lends some forward momentum to the downtempo vibes, more reminiscent of Phases & Stages if you’d still like a Willie Nelson touchstone. It’s more philosophical than narrative, musing on coming to terms with everything from one’s potential (“You Gotta Fly”) to friendships (“The Sun Always Shines (For You”) to resilience (the bluegrassy, relatively bouncy “The Contender”) to flat-out despair (“Leave the Bottle”). It’s not a total extended inward stare; Touchton switches to third person for the rustic waltz “Holdin’ On To Nothin’” and travels outside of more than one comfort zone on the stark, spooky piano balladry of “I Can’t Breathe” (a sympathetic rumination on the recent George Floyd case). Austin maestros Geoff Queen (steel guitar and dobro) and Heather Rae Johnson (fiddle and viola) loom so large in the mix that they’re almost duet partners on some songs, dressing up Touchton’s starkest sentiments with rustic warmth.
All in all, Wishing Well rewards a close listen more than a casual one, daring to serve up something that’ll stick to your ribs in a world of country-pop empty calories. It may not be music for all occasions or all persuasions, but it knows what it is and makes the absolute most of it. And it’s not afraid to end on some of its own darkest notes: “Leave the Bottle,” in a project full of killers, finds the beauty in menace and vice versa. It won’t beg for your attention, but it’ll damn sure earn it.