Album Review : Bill Callahan’s ‘Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest’

Bill Callahan is one of America’s best modern songwriters. Like contemporaries Will Oldham, Damien Jurado, Phil Elverum, and the late Vic Chesnutt, Callahan paints pictures of worlds of long ago in his songs. Touching on emotions and real life so plainly and without much need for interpretation, his dark voice and acoustic-driven songs feel like old tunes freed from some lock box found in the back of a closet. 

Callahan began making music under the moniker Smog, creating lo fi songs often marked by repetition and largely instrumental music, but gradually evolved to the lyric-driven music he’s known for today. On his newest album for Drag City, Bill Callahan finds his voice after a period where he felt he was done with music after getting married and becoming a father for the first time in 2015. Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest is the loosest and most welcoming Bill Callahan record yet, showing a newly reinvigorated artist. Callahan sounds like a man who’s found a side to his songwriting he didn’t know ever existed. It’s an exciting thing to hear. 

The best example of Bill Callahan’s “new” voice is the track “Writing”. Callahan sings “It feels good to be writing again/clear water flows from my pen” over a lilting picked acoustic guitar and pedal steel. He sounds like an artist finding a new well of inspiration and his perspective is infectious. Though, there are lots of examples over the 60+ minutes and 20 songs of Callahan’s vigor for writing again. “Black Dog On The Beach”, “Angela”, “The Ballad Of The Hulk”, and “Morning Is My Godmother” all display a veracity and lyrical sharpness that only comes from some kind of deeply discovered well of inspiration. 

Songs like “Watch Me Get Married”, “747”, “What Comes After Certainty” and “Young Icarus” feel like they’re directly influenced by Bill Callahan’s domesticated bliss, while “Confederate Jasmine”, “Camels”, and “Tugboats and Tumbleweeds” fall more into classic Callahan song creating, with a newfound spirit for writing. 

Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest sees one of the best songwriters working today finding a new place to create from. A space of inspiration that finds a songwriter become a husband, who becomes a father, and then ultimately a songwriter once again. 

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