Country music, like another great American institution, baseball, appears deceptively simple when you watch it. Writing and singing about one's life might appear relatively easy on the surface (just as chasing down a fly ball or driving a pitch into the alley for a double does on TV), but it's an illusion. In both cases the game is faster when you're in it -- and requires absolute immersion. Whether it's Merle Haggard or Mickey Mantle, body and soul (and the stars) must be in perfect alignment to manifest something extraordinary -- and the merely average fall by the wayside.

California's Kern Richards is a new name to us, but on first encountering his gravelly vocals and his world-weary lyrics it's clear he's seen some miles. An admittedly brief attempt to research him on the internet didn't provide much background information, so we'll have to rely almost solely on what he communicates to us through his music (which is probably for the best). 

It's impossible to fathom that his debut for upstart ALTCO Recordings, Anywhere But Home, is the first time he's walked up to the plate. There's certainly some major league level musicians backing him -- including players who have served stints with Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, and X -- but Richards performances are what drives the record. His songs inhabit a dark world where life not only throws obstacles in his path, but where forces (sometimes unseen) conspire against him -- akin to Tom Waits at his ugliest, without a hint of beauty or redemption.

If Anywhere But Home is "about" anything, it's survival in a world where people are as cold and immovable as the concrete fixtures that surround them: "If the bartender could read my mind/Man, he'd call the police" Richards sings with a believability that can come only from a lifetime of loneliness. These songs are not soliloquies spouted with the intention of attracting like-minded souls (or even with the intention of catharsis), they're the graffiti that's painted on the soul of a man constantly at odds with the world and himself. Projected from his gruff voice -- an amalgamation of Lee Hazelwood and latter-day Leonard Cohen -- each song is like a photograph that has become worn from being carried callously until it's dilapidated condition tells a separate story from the picture itself.

Kern Richards is a serious talent, and -- unfortunately -- one that doesn't fit in an age of plastic celebrities and disposable pop culture. Anywhere But Home leaves scars on the listener. Once it's heard, it can't be unheard -- and the landscapes it travels through can't be un-experienced. It's not a good time, but it's a great record. Many of today's singers and songwriters are unwilling to travel these crooked miles -- and that's fine -- but to be truly great, one must dig beneath the skin, to the muscle. Richards does this, and keeps going beyond the flesh and the material world to the chasms of the soul.

The best record of 2014 so far, and a tough one to beat.


"The best record of 2014 so far,

  and a tough one to beat."