Just a Mortal Man
The title for Jerry Lawson’s debut album became almost frighteningly prophetic last year.
The 71-year-old singer, known as the lead vocalist for the a capella vocal group The Persuasions, was all set to release the album in 2014. Lawson then fell gravely ill, prompting a delay. Lawson’s health has improved over the course of the year, so Just a Mortal Man finally saw the light of day this spring. While the delay was unfortunate, at least Lawson is able to enjoy the much-deserved praise the album has earned. Just a Mortal Man is one of the year’s best releases — regardless of the year it was released.
The album is a soul record, though there are more than enough elements to make it fit comfortably in the country music world, or at least within the endearingly fuzzy borders of Americana. Mortal Man was released on Red Beet Records, one of Nashville’s best and most consistent small record labels. Label head and co-producer Eric Brace brought some excellent songs to the table, and Lawson interprets them with all the skill that comes from 40 years of singing professionally. On a quieter song like Paul Simon’s “Peace Like a River” or Brace’s “Loving Arms,” Lawson’s voice dips down to a murmur, adding vocal nuances to the lyrics the way a master painter works a canvas. On a more upbeat note, such as “Never Been to Memphis,” he kicks it up to a fun, feisty level.
The country elements exist peacefully alongside the soul sounds, sometimes within the same track. Lawson handles them both with ease. The title track, featuring trumpets and background vocals from The McCrary Sisters, sounds like it could be a lost track from Sam Cooke or The Temptations. Lawson can belt out a traditional country tune just as well, as demonstrated with Peter Cooper’s “Wine.” His sole co-writing credit is on the bluegrass-tinged “Woman in White” with famed lyricist Robert Hunter. With background vocals from Jim Lauderdale and banjo from The Steeldrivers’ Richard Bailey, Lawson navigates through the typical dense, Hunter-esque lyrics to demonstrate he’s no slouch at bluegrass, either. The album closes out with “I’ll Come Running Back to You,” a bouncy doo-wop number with Brace and Cooper serving ably as Lawson’s background singers.
With contemporary country reviews, the question of “But is it country?” inevitably arises. Given the genre’s embrace of elements from pop, rock and even EDM, it’s almost mandatory to note exactly what kind of country song or album is discussed. When an album like Just a Mortal Man comes around though, it’s probably best to put aside the musical classification system and just appreciate it for what it is — a gifted singer at his very best.