From the opening lines of “Ease Me Into Dying,” the leadoff track from Ross Adams’ latest album Escaping Southern Heat, Adams’ vivid poetry paints a picture of love lost, wanderlust, and the gritty reality of working-class America. Atop jangling guitars and a pulsing rhythm section, Adams evokes images of run-down Southern industrial mills and grimy New York subway stations as he sings of the ghosts of romances gone-by, laying the beautifully wistful foundation upon which Escaping Southern Heat is built.
Sonically, Escaping Southern Heat runs the gamut of Americana influence, from distorted Southern rock to melodic folk ballads and barroom country shuffles, brought together by the most prestigious backing band in the genre, The 400 Unit.
Adams first met The 400 Unit over a decade ago while sneaking backstage at Jason Isbell shows to help load gear and talk shop with bassist Jimbo Hart. Ten years later, Hart and Adams teamed up to record Escaping Southern Heat at East Avalon Recorders in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with Hart recruiting the remainder of The 400 Unit to round out the sessions: Chad Gamble on drums, Derry Deborja on keyboards, Hart on bass and Sadler Vaden on guitar alongside Adams. As if the group weren’t powerful enough, Adams tapped former American Aquarium alum Whit Wright to add his signature pedal steel flourishes throughout the album, helping to create a record as musically powerful as it is thematically thoughtful. “We recorded everything in about three days,” says Adams. “I had about twelve songs all written out and we did about three takes of each with the guys and they just banged it out. I don’t think I’ve played with a more talented band in all my life.”
As his core, Adams is a narrative storyteller, and throughout Escaping Southern Heat, his stories revolve around volatile relationships, civil unrest, and the forgotten communities in America. “Every song I write has a narrator that’s not me,” says Adams. “It’s obviously influenced by my life and experiences, but it’s never truly me in these songs. I just love creating characters and telling stories.”
The album’s title track explores the changing South—and its resistance to change—in the wake of the Civil Rights Act, specifically inspired by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the Heart of Atlanta Motel VS The United States Supreme Court case, and the Orangeburg Massacre, during which South Carolina Highway Patrol officers opened fire on African-American protestors demonstrating against racial segregation at a local bowling alley. “I’ve just been getting tired of the heat down here,” says Adams. “The racism and the way things haven’t changed enough. We’re still seeing this shit daily, and people are reflecting on the past but still having to go through the same terrible shit today.”
Reckoning with the history of the South is a complicated task, and on Escaping Southern Heat, Adams makes no attempt to justify the hatred that colors the South’s history. On “Tobacco Country,” however, he does allow himself to reflect romantically on the working-class region that he calls home singing, “We might have got a bad rap or two / But there’s good people down here / One who believes in equal rights and freedoms / And for that old southern reputation to disappear.”
“I don’t plan on staying in the South forever,” says Adams. “I have this dream of moving out West, but ‘Tobacco Country’ was me sorta remembering my roots, but still wanting to get out and see the world.”
Many of the songs on Escaping Southern Heat address institutional issues, such as the reflective, atmospheric country track “Teach Me How To Moune,” where Adams takes the story of a PTSD-addled soldier returned from war and forgotten by the government, and crafts an emotional character study that doubles as a poignant anti-war anthem. Elsewhere on the album, however, Adams tells some more personal issues. On the Dylan-channeling “4th Street Up,” Adams addresses the anxieties and inner demons that can keep you from moving forward and making progress in your life. Meanwhile, on the shuffling “30 Days,” he sings about quitting drinking and pledging allegiance to your love, and shouting out Johnny Cash and June Carter in the process.
Adams’ ability to blend both micro- and macro-level distillations of American life throughout Escaping Southern Heat are a product of his literary passion and genre-spanning influences that have defined his career. As a young preteen, Adams’ was tuned into the confessional and emotive grunge poetry of Kurt Cobain before finding the world-weary narrative lyricism of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and, eventually, Drive-By Truckers. Eventually, songwriters in the Charlotte, N.C. scene started to take notice of Adams’ talent and he spent years cutting his teeth on tours up and down the East coast and throughout the midwest United States, performing songs off his 2014 LP, Ross Adams, 1952 and his 2018 record, Songs from an Ancient Terrace.
Now, with The 400 Unit backing him on his most poignant, expansive collection of songs thus far in his career, Adams is poised to make a name for himself as one of the premier songwriters in modern Americana.
Escaping Southern Heat is out on September 10th, 2021.