NEPA native Tony Halchak releases new Americana record, “Harvest Songs”
Mountain Top native Tony Halchak has a knack for writing songs that appeal to the blue-collar sentiment and coal country culture of his home region, but it was an impending move away from the Wyoming Valley that found the Americana songsmith at his most self-reflective.
Halchak, who moved with his wife and two daughters to Grand Rapids, Mich., in February, released his latest studio album, “Harvest Songs” on Aug. 29 on digital platforms. He is wrapping up a small tour of local release shows with a 9 p.m. performance Friday at the Backyard Ale House in Scranton as part of the Electric City Music Conference.
The record is an articulate collection of well-woven stories told over a mixture of alternative country, folk and blues.
“I had an idea of the story I wanted to tell,” Halchak said. “It was forming to be this family that had a farm in the Rust Belt, and several generations of the family lived there, and they couldn’t make ends meet anymore.”
Halchak, who began working on the project after the release of his well-received 2015 record “Even Giants Despair,” said he was trying to work with themes local people could relate to, and even considered introducing a fracking company into the plot.
“I tend to write a lot of songs and whittle them down for the record,” Halchak said. “I think I wrote about 200 songs. At one point, I realized it was becoming autobiographical and I was using that story as an analogy to my not wanting to leave the area.”
Halchak’s musical history in NEPA is notable. Since 2003, Halchak has spent time as a co-writer and performer in Barefoot — a band that also went through incarnations as Rippletree and Evernight — honed his instrumental chops in country band Farmer’s Daughter, and produced and performed live with Scranton indie-rock outfit Jung Bergo.
But when he took on songwriting under his own name, Halchak began to find his voice.
“I attack everything from a songwriter mentality,” Halchak said. “I’d never say I’m a great guitar player or singer, but I think, if I spend enough time on it, my songwriting is my best strength.”
Halchak’s modesty is endearing, but his prowess is more powerful than he lets on. His instrumentation is polished and diverse — he is capable with a guitar, bass and mandolin. And the combination of his low-register rasp and his eloquent lyricism calls to mind the critically-acclaimed solo work of former Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler.
The songwriter’s ability to capture the plight of the everyman makes his stories vivid to the listener. His song, “Used Car Blues,” for example, is about a salesman.
“There’s a lot of stories about the buyer but not about the salesman and how he has to make a living being portrayed as the villain,” Halchak said. “That song has a self-contained story of him saying to his wife, ‘I think it’s time to shut this thing down and get out of here.’”
The fact that Halchak’s own transplant is echoed is obvious, but his parallels go a step further in “Used Car Blues.”
“My father is actually a used car salesman, and my mother’s name is Kelly,” Halchak said, pointing out he used the same name for the song salesman’s wife. “I was almost writing from that particular mind set.”
Produced at Bret Alexander’s Saturation Acres recording studio in Dupont, “Harvest Songs” features Alexander and fellow NEPA residents percussionist James Naylor and violinist Timothy Huh.
“I usually write the song and the structure, and Bret and I will sit down and play it acoustically and say, ‘Does it need anything just in this very basic form?’ Then I’ll bring in the musicians, and I literally let them feel what the song is and let them put in what they feel they need to. I want each of the musicians to be themselves on the record,” Halchak said.
The players he’s collaborated with in the past have coined a phrase for Halchak’s particular type of fusion music.
“Black Diamond Americana,” Halchak said. “It’s Americana, but it has all those rough edges to it, whether it be blues or rock or something else.”
If Halchak’s hard-to-define style is the sum of his influences, the development of his songwriting is the sum of his maturity.
“I’ve taken a more introspective look at my life and the world, and it’s gotten a lot less of ‘I have all the answers’ and more of ‘I don’t have any of the answers,’” he said. “My songs can come off as sad or melancholy, but I always bury some hope in there. Life can be tough, but if you search, there’s always a little glimmer of hope.”
Reach Matt Mattei at 570-991-6651 or on Twitter @TimesLeaderMatt.
IF YOU GO
What: Tony Halchak album release show
Where: Backyard Ale House, 523 Linden St., Scranton
When: 9 p.m. Friday
Additional information: Halchak’s newest release ‘Harvest Songs’ will be available in physical copies at the show, but it is also available on digital platforms by visiting his website, tonyhalchak.com.