Growing up in rural Eastern Kentucky, Adam Chaffins was never far from musical inspiration. The area, after all, is fertile ground sprouting revolutionary talent, from Ricky Skaggs to Dwight Yoakam to Sturgill Simpson.
But he was also one of 80 in his high school class, the only one in the county. “I grew up in a very isolated place,” says Adam Chaffins. “No one thought anything I did — or the music I liked — was cool. I was on my own plain.”
The moment you see Chaffins take the stage, you may find that hard to believe. For starters, the classically trained multi-instrumentalist often dons an upright bass, a behemoth of an instrument that could easily become unwieldy in less capable hands. A smooth baritone vocalist, Chaffins croons with the conviction of his country heroes while attacking the strings with the precision of a much angstier persuasion.
On debut album Some Things Won’t Last, Chaffins channels that sound and lays bare the skeletons in his closet with stunning aplomb. It’s a head-stopping introduction built on the remains of experiences indicative of an artist much further developed than one just releasing a first solo record.
Much of that confidence is owed to Chaffins’ years as a touring member of buzzy alt-bluegrass bands. First, with the Belfry Fellows, a project that burned hot but ultimately flamed out before being given the proper fuel. Then, with the Deadly Gentlemen, a string band with a pop approach that ultimately suffered the wrath of record label politics. And finally, with Town Mountain, a celebrated bluegrass troupe that served as a segue through transition periods, both for the group and for Chaffins personally.
It’s those career milestones, along with the personal relationships that underscore all of them, that form the basis for Adam Chaffins’ foray to the front of the stage. The idea that things end, and that’s ok.
“With this record, and being a musician, what’s the truest thing I’ve experienced?” Chaffins asked. “All the fucking breakups. The emotional breakups, the band breakups. The clinging to love and affection and then all of a sudden just letting go. I just feel like everything I’ve done up to this point has led to this record.”
Album opener “No Big Deal” sets the foundation for what’s to come: an exploration of dashed expectations and the sometimes flippant reactions we’ve all had to them. “And hey — no big deal; hope the rest of your life is a thrill,” Chaffins sings. “No, won’t complain. Just thought you were more, but you’re more of the same.”
It’s those types of conversational twists that reveal just how much country songwriting influenced Chaffins’ own writing style. Because what’s more conversational than swearing you won’t complain about your circumstances immediately before tossing out an offhand complaint?
And certainly, Chaffins’ East Kentucky upbringing and love for 90s country percolates throughout his music. The most obvious occasion on Some Things Won’t Last is undoubtedly an impassioned cover of Keith Whitley’s seminal bittersweet ballad, “I’m Over You.” But it’s a disservice to simply call Some Things Won’t Last a product of Chaffins’ influences.
Forged over more than two years at Zac Brown’s Southern Ground Nashville recording studio, the Producer Ethan Ballinger (Lee Ann Womack, Andrew Combs, Ryan Culwell) and engineer Brandon Bell (Brent Cobb, The Wood Brothers, Sarah Jarosz) teamed up on the project, embracing Chaffins’ wide-ranging sonic palette and unique voice. A talented cast of Nashville favorites like Matty Alger and Aubrie Sellers also lent their talents to Chaffins’ vision.
He liberally teeters between sardonic and sincere, delicately balancing the catchy inclinations of songs like “I Might Be Wrong,” “Making It Known” and “Doorway” with the soft-spoken, regretful swoon of songs like “Take It All Back” and “Further Away” (the latter a song Chaffins originally wrote for The Deadly Gentlemen).
And then there’s “Who I Am,” Chaffins’ lone co-write (with the award-winning Jerry Salley, no less). The album borrows its name from a line in the song, which, if it weren’t for the Keith Whitley cover, would feel like the most Whitley-esque song on the record. “I’ll be here when you figure out who I am,” Chaffins sings. A thorough listen to the highly personal record might expedite the process.
Throughout the entire 9-song debut, Chaffins learns from the past without lamenting it. The trials and tribulations of his twenties ultimately inspired a new appreciation for his experiences, this time embracing their fleeting nature and likely end.
“I think back on those experiences and realize I didn’t appreciate them at the time for what they were, which maybe I should have, because they led me to where I am,” Chaffins says.
Where exactly is that? Ready to hang it all on the line, mostly. “Some artists complain about the crowds they play for, but the music you make attracts your audience,” Chaffins says. “I want to make music that attracts a diverse audience.” And with Some Things Won’t Last, Chaffins is off to an impressive start.
—Jeremy Ray Burchard