Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest (Drag City)
Reviewed by Abby Johnston, Fri., June 14, 2019
Bill Callahan built a 30-year career with his eyes fixed on the outside world, matching existential pondering about landscapes vast and small to soundscapes equally grand and intimate. Seventh studio album under his own name, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest narrows its focus to his immediate sight line: domestic life. Since 2013's Dream River, the Maryland native's gotten married, become a father, and returned home to Austin after a brief stint in Santa Barbara. The result? An idyll wellspring: "Well, I never thought I'd make it this far/ Little old house, recent model car/ And I've got the woman of my dreams/ And an imitation Eames," he sings in his rich, signature baritone on "What Comes After Certainty" before going on to name-check Willie Nelson.
Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest's entirely acoustic arrangement harks to a catalog defined by stillness and moments of quiet revelation. The blooming scales of "Writing," a paean to rediscovering creative voice, are measured in their restraint, punctuated by little more than steel whines. Even in brighter songs like "747," the guitar interplay tempered by a percussive build leaves room for Callahan's curious observations on something as commonplace as air travel: "I woke up on a 747/ Flying through some stock footage of heaven."
So much songwriting centers on escapism, pointing us down untraveled roads toward characters we haven't met. On Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, the adopted Texan plumbs the quotidian: marriage and family. Near the end of the 20-song collection, he duets with his wife Hanly Banks Callahan on the American folk song "Lonesome Valley." As their harmonies weave and bob around each other, there's finally a sense that Bill Callahan, 53, won't have to go it alone.