Local songwriters Tom Flannery, Bret Alexander release new concept album
Two of Northeastern Pennsylvania’s most bona fide troubadours found a partnership two years ago that just — well — worked.
Now Tom Flannery and Bret Alexander are back at it, releasing their latest volume of co-created music, “Tales From PA 6.” The collection of songs tells the stories of characters the duo might have met on an atemporal tour along the historic Pennsylvania highway, and it resonates with deft and thoughtful songwriting.
The lyricism, at times narrative and at others poetic, paints vivid imagery against a soundscape that features soul-bearing string arrangements that touch every note from folk to roots rock to alt-country.
“Tales From PA 6” is the pair’s second stellar installment of NEPA-steeped songs, following 2016’s well-received “Dupont Back Porches.”
That Flannery and Alexander can produce inspiring music together shouldn’t be a surprise. Flannery is an accomplished playwright and songwriter who, in addition to being prolific in his critically-lauded output, has worked with Pulitzer Prize-winner Jason Miller in the theater arena and notable musicians Neal Casal (Ryan Adams & The Cardinals, Chris Robinson Brotherhood) and John Ginty (Robert Randolph’s Family Band) in the studio.
Alexander has earned a reputation as NEPA’s most vetted songsmith, adding pages to the American songbook in his career as a solo musician and producer following a long and celebrated tenure with nationally recognized roots rock veterans The Badlees.
When the artists met at a bar to brainstorm for their latest record, Alexander suggested an album of songs about Route 6.
“I was thinking — it was kind of one of those grand ideas — ‘What if you had an app and went up on Route 6, and it was tied to GPS, and as you drove up that road, as you hit Camptown, you’d hear a song about Steven Foster? As you hit the French Azilum, you’d hear a song about Marie Antionette. It’s this stretch of road with all this Americana on it.’ Then we realized we don’t know anything about designing an app for a record,” Alexander said.
Explaining that most of his records begin as concept albums, Alexander laughingly pointed out his penchant for quickly abandoning those ideas.
“In the case of Tom, it’s boom, boom, boom, and it’s half done before I change my mind,” Alexander said.
And while the app remains an idea for a future album, “Tales from PA 6” pays homage to the length of road named in its title. “Amantha Ray” references Route 29, which intersects Route 6 in Tunkhannock, in its telling of a man who pines for his lost love; “Stephen Foster’s Ghost” invokes the “Oh! Susanna” songwriter while painting a portrait of opioid abuse and economically depressed masses; and “Twilight In the Shadowlands” looks at the dismal legacy of Major General John Sullivan’s bloody campaign against Native Americans during the Revolutionary War.
“The first song we came up with was ‘Twilight In the Shadowlands,’” Flannery said. “We thought, ‘This is like a little movie; it’s very cinematic.’ Once we had that, we went with the concept of ‘Who would you meet on that drive?’”
From there, Flannery said, the duo addressed themes relevant in today’s world: alienation, substance abuse, escapism.
“That wasn’t intentional, but that’s the way it came out,” he said.
When Flannery and Alexander teamed up for “Dupont Back Porches,” they didn’t know what to expect. Flannery said he began as a fan of Alexander’s music and kept on him about a collaboration after they played together at a songwriter’s event.
“In a lot of ways, our earlier songs were a mixed bag,” Alexander said. “Tom would come in with a lot of songs that were pretty well realized. My role might be more dealing with arrangements, the studio side, the musical side. On this new one, it reversed a bit. Everybody was opening their books and saying, ‘Here’s what we have.’ There really wasn’t much structure to it. It was intuitive.”
“The Death of Joe Strummer” is a prime example of the partners meeting in the middle. Flannery wrote the lyrics after being inspired by seeing unsettling documentary footage of the former Clash frontman passing out fliers in Atlantic City during his last few years alive. Alexander composed a piece that alludes to the Clash’s “London Calling” in the pulsing guitar of its opening and slides into a twangy folk arrangement that features banjo and mandolin.
“Talent makes up for all kinds of things, and he’s as talented a guy as I’ve ever played with,” Flannery said. “I had the easy part. Bret had to add all the fine brushstrokes.”
The duo’s comfort level, Flannery noted, has a lot to do with their similar ages, philosophies and family lives (their daughters are near in age).
“These were probably the two easiest records I’ve ever recorded,” Flannery added. “I think this record is better than the one we did initially, which we were very proud of.”
While both artists are pleased with an initial wave of positive reviews on “Tales From PA 6,” they haven’t looked too far ahead of creating the record.
“I would love to do some shows,” Alexander said. “Plans are pretty fluid at the moment. This collection hopefully will get heard a little more, and we’ll be able to do some playing.”
Reach Matt Mattei at 570-991-6651 or on Twitter @TimesLeaderMatt.
‘Tales From PA 6’
Artists: Tom Flannery and Bret Alexander
Available: Physical copies can be purchased through Flannery’s website, tomflannery.com. Digital copies are available on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Spotify and all other major digital platforms.