Mason Lively writes a good bit about vices that, from a legal standpoint, he’s not old enough to have experienced. Either he’s led a lifetime or two in his 20 years on this planet, or he has some remarkably imaginative songwriting chops. Lively’s debut album, Stronger Ties, blends neo-traditional country elements in with a little blues-rock and gets his music career off to a very promising start.
Lively wrote every song on his album, with nary a co-writer in sight. That’s a significant achievement for an artist of any age, but the notable aspect is that none of the songs are throwaways. Some of them touch on well-trodden ground (the hard living of “Heavy Toll,” the no-worries credo of “Worry about Nothing”), but Lively doesn’t rely on tired clichés, and he never devolves a song into the ever-popular listicle format. “Lonely Comes Back Around” sounds like a mid-‘90s country up-tempo radio hit, while “Heavy Toll” adds some blues-rock to the country mix. While his Nashville contemporaries are adding so many pop elements into their music that the “country” part of the music becomes an afterthought, Lively doesn’t stray too far from a solid country sound. Credit goes to his band, featuring Nathan Hanna on bass, electric guitar, banjo and mandolin, Austin Popp on drums and Carson Popp on electric guitar. Texas luminaries like Lloyd Maines, Bukka Allen and Reckless Kelly’s Cody Braun are noteworthy guest musicians.
“Roleplay” deserves special mention, because there’s practically nothing like it in the realm of country music. A love song that is exactly what the title suggests, Lively sings about his willingness to follow his girl anywhere, even if it involves dressing up as Han Solo to complement her Princess Leia. It’s not quite as lewd as someone like Hayes Carll might take the idea, but it’s the combination of sweetness and kinkiness that makes it so memorable. “We don’t have to be ourselves to love each other tonight,” indeed.
Maybe Lively hasn’t led the hard life of “Heavy Toll” or shared the experiences of the weary rodeo rider of “Worth the Fall.” (Let’s not even consider what inspired “Roleplay.”) If a 71-year-old John Prine can demonstrate his vitality with a new album, then a 20-year-old Mason Lively can show off his maturity and poise with his debut, too.