The best storytellers often aren’t the ones who have had the wildest experiences; they’re the ones who have experienced things we all have, and can articulate them in a way we haven’t yet figured out ourselves. They give us a new vocabulary for talking about ourselves and our world. That’s the gift William Matheny presents to us.
Matheny, a West Virginia native and longtime multi-instrumentalist for Athens, Ohio, indie heroes Southeast Engine, first broke out on his own with 2017’s Strange Constellations, his debut 11-song solo collection. He would best be classed as a songwriter’s songwriter--the kind of composer who gets the melody just right every time, and the kind of lyricist whose turns of phrase bring an involuntary grin. Once you’ve heard his deft songcraft, you might feel cheated that you didn’t discover him sooner.
His newest release on Misra Records, Moon Over Kenova, is a 14 song EP that Matheny conceived to accompany his 2017 debut. A lot of people will tell you that 14 songs is far more than an EP, and they’d be completely right about that, but he’s not here to argue. There are brand new tracks from the same song cycle as Strange Constellations, there are live recordings, there are re-imaginings of previously released songs and new interpretations of some of his heroes like Jason Molina and Tom T. Hall. Matheny compares it to a “last walk-through of a former residence before you lock the door and turn in the key.” Most importantly, the 14 songs that comprise Moon Over Kenova are neither b-sides nor outtakes. In fact, this is some of his strongest work to date. PopMatters says that “the work presented on Moon Over Kenova stands on their own two feet just as much as they are a practical extension of the music and the themes presented on Matheny’s previous full-length release.”
If Moon Over Kenova marks your introduction to the writing of William Matheny, there’s plenty to find appealing: Jackson Browne pop hooks alternate with widescreen, cinematic rock’n’roll that brings to mind Warren Zevon backed by Drive-by Truckers. Take, for instance, “Tonight & Every Night From Now On,” a neo-Tom Petty-esque pop-rock tune:
“I think it was Saint Teresa of Avila,” Matheny says, “who once said that there are more tears shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones. For those of a more secular bent, I'm pretty sure that Garth Brooks said the same thing.
Matheny goes on to say, “After the release of Strange Constellations, my band and I hit the road very hard, criss-crossing North America, playing anywhere that would have us and, for the most part, enjoying receptive audiences that appreciated what we do. Somewhere in the blur of all that touring, we played a show in a tattoo parlor. We were the final act on a bill that was stacked with noise rock bands. I was nursing my drink, watching the sixth or seventh group and began to have some doubts about the bed that I'd made for myself. By the time we played our set, loaded up the van and moved on to the next town, the song had largely written itself. I don't know Saint Teresa or Mr. Brooks personally, but I'm sure they had bad days at the office too.”
It’s in the details where Matheny will make true believers. His songs are full of moments that match smart observation with wordplay that’s impressive mostly in its effortlessness. “There’s some laughing Katherine / down at the end of the bar / with some funny Daniel / down at the end of her arm,” he sings in “Blood Moon Singer.” It’s a scene that could take place anywhere, and does, which is Matheny’s point, as he illustrates the blur of touring life. But no one put it quite that way until William Matheny came along.
That same novelist’s eye for detail can be found in the cover of Tom T. Hall’s country classic “That’s How I Got to Memphis,” which gets a new interpretation by Matheny on Moon Over Kenova. Regarding the work of one his stated major influences, Matheny says “it’s my favorite kind of song to sing, a melody that seems like it’s always existed and lyrics that are open enough to leave some mystery for all parties involved. Where is Memphis really? Why did they leave? Where have you been? Where are you going? What will you do when you finally get there?”
Like Hall, William Matheny is a storyteller and songwriter. Also like Hall, he’s the kind of artist who garners instant respect from other artists, even as he makes songs so effortlessly catchy. We could resent that he didn’t arrive sooner, but let’s instead celebrate that he’s here now.