Crown Jewel

John Coinman’s new album, Under the Sun, may be his most ambitious yet

Someday, someone will tell the definitive John Coinman story—the tales of a kid from rural New Mexico with big dreams, moving to L.A. to make music; having adventures and a deep friendship with Dances With Wolves author Michael Blake; meeting Kevin Costner and their story of friendship and playing music together while still trying to cultivate a career of his own. Add to this a move to Tucson to raise a family and re-establish roots that go back to the 1940s.

Instead, for now, we have Under the Sun, Coinman's first release in three years, his sixth overall, and arguably his most ambitious and out of-the-box project to date.

Having worked on parts of his previous recordings in Nashville with frequent collaborator and friend Teddy Morgan, Coinman decided he wanted this album "to be a real Tucson record." Recording with Duncan Stitt in his Writer's Room Studio gave him the opportunity and time to create just that. Equally significant, however, was in how he wanted to up-end the process of how his records are usually made.

"I wanted to focus on my voice," Coinman says. "I've never concentrated on it as much (as here) and I wanted to use it as an instrument, more than just a conveyer of lyrics."

As a result, unlike previous recordings (and how most rock and roll records are made), where Coinman crafted songs by first recording rhythm tracks, then solos and eventually lead vocals, these songs were all built upon his voice and acoustic guitar. Coinman says he wasn't entirely clear where this process would lead. But he knew a solid foundation of voice and guitar would be essential and that he wanted these songs to stand on their own with their most essential components—melody and lyrical content leading the way.

The end product is an album of deep reflection—looking forward, looking back. It's also an acknowledgment that the human condition, by definition, will bring out the best and worst in all of us, and that no matter how well intentioned a life he has lived, he is a part of that continuum.

Almost half this record consists of tunes that might be considered classic Coinman. Songs like "Riders on This Train," "Long Way Home" and "Struck by Lightning" are all staples of his live performances these last two or three years. And they are great songs. These are also tunes that have been recorded and sung by Kevin Costner & Modern West, the band he shares not only with Costner, Morgan and others, but also with Blair Forward (his longtime bassist and musical partner who also co-produced the album) and drummer Larry Cobb. And while he'll be the first to tell you how he's benefited from his friendship and association with Costner, with whom he's played scores of dates all over the world this last decade, in re-recording these tunes he's effectively reclaimed them as his own.

He says this is especially so in "Brothers on the Run," his rock and roll tribute to Blake.

"I wrote this after the Neil Young concert here two or three years ago," Coinman says. "I brought it to Teddy, who helped me work on it and we had a version we'd recorded in Nashville. But (my wife) Jo called me on it. She said it was a little too clean."

Coinman reworked the arrangement to create something more dynamic. And while it's clearly about his relationship with Blake, there is a universal element to this new version that will move anyone who has lost someone close.

Clearly, however, what makes this record different—and from Coinman's perspective, almost revolutionary—are the new tunes unfamiliar to most. The most striking of these, "Silver Necklaces," features a vocal that sounds as if it's being played like a violin, pushed and pulled forward and back. This song is an emotional reflection on our culture of haves and have nots.

"I understand I'm a privileged elite, and that I have a big connection with people and things both good and bad. Silver Necklaces or Iron Chains, as the song says," Coinman says.

There is also a striking instrumental bridge led by the violin of Nick Coventry that sounds like something between an Irish/Scottish march—and unlike anything ever heard before on a Coinman recording. When asked about this unique passage, Coinman talked about how he's allowed his songwriting process to evolve.

"I usually like to hold on to things pretty tight," he says. "But with some of these I found myself just allowing things to happen."

He says "Tucson," a haunting six-minute opus and exploration of this land where his grandfather settled in the 1940s, is another song that benefits from this process, producing another tune with which there is nothing to compare to in the Coinman songbook.

The album is bookended by two additional acoustic songs, "Love is Everywhere" and "Let Me Be the One." While these songs, like the others, are devoid of flashy solos, they are filled with excellent musicianship and tasteful contributions by Coventry, whose playing is exquisite throughout, as well as by Neil Harry on pedal steel guitar and longtime friend and L.A. ringer Tony Gilkyson on guitars. (Gilkyson also co-mixed the project with Grammy-winning producer Alfonso Rodenas.) Stitt also adds piano in places where Coinman says he hadn't expected to have keyboards, while Will Clipman and Sabra Faulk add some percussive colors and background vocals respectively.

Coinman adds he has no illusions about making it as an artist who is now in his early 70s, but he's happy with the album.

"Very few guys my age have any hope about making it big," he says. "But I feel really hopeful."

After spending some time with this CD, you realize he's talking about much more than the record.