Written by Traci Rogers
Jul 27, 2012 at 08:00 PM
ImageWhite-washed, clapboard-built churches in rural America where the organist rules only second to the preacher from behind the spit-spackled pulpit is an image Cory Chisel and The Wandering Sons band might conjure up in the minds of its adoring fans. Without the cradling chording of the keyboardist, few follow the preacher’s invitation; without the preacher’s lyrical call, the organist only sets a sedate mood. But when the two can read each other without saying a word, the outcome might push a few souls into surrendering all.

Cory Chisel’s and Adriel Harris'(the only Wandering daughter of the band) partnership operates similarly, but with a few major exceptions: Chisel doesn’t preach hell-fire-brimstone and Harris doesn’t sport a glory-bun coiffure with pious-faced condescension. Just as the band’s name suggests, their altar call invites audiences to wander away from a fixed point or place by questioning the exclusionary rules often mandated by most organized institutions. By performance’s end, CCTWS’ mix of Rhythm and Blues, Delta Blues, Soul, Steel Country, Southern Gospel and Folk had successfully converted the Fitzgerald’s Friday night audience into Old Believers. 

Before taking the stage to promote their latest CD Old Believers, Chisel and Harris spent some time with Houston Music Review to discuss songwriting, politics and religion.
Oddly enough, we were forced to notice the mega-phoned preacher on the street corner who was shouting a Revelatory diatribe at passers-by in the crowded intersection of White Oak and Studemont. Of course, I couldn’t resist asking Chisel, the son of a Baptist preacher, and Harris who was a childhood congregant in a Christian commune about their takes on the end-of-times preacher.
“How can you preach love by shouting?” Chisel quipped while lavishing affection upon Dutch, Fitzgerald’s resident cat. 

Image“They feel obliged by the guilt in their souls to do what they’re doing,” Harris added.
Chisel explained that even though he was born into an evangelical family, he noticed the transparency of organized religion at an early age which often strained his relationship with his father. Fortunately, he and his father can now agree to disagree, and they both enjoy a loving father-Wandering son relationship. 

The songwriting genius from Wisconsin, now a Nashville transplant, takes influence from American songwriter royalty like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Townes Van Zandt. Among the many songwriters within Chisel’s circles, he and first-rate songwriter, Rosanne Cash, often share notes and ideas with one another as well. She praises his writing in a 2010 interview with American Songwriter. Also, Brian T. Atkinson, author and editor of the 2012 Townes Van Zandt biography I’ll Be Here In The Morning, was so intrigued by Chisel’s brilliance that he included his interview with the young songwriter in his book. 

Like his influences, Chisel’s writing achieves the goal of combining daily observations with profound lyrics, a difficult feat and rarely achieved goal for many songwriters.
In a previous generation, for example, Dylan noticed how the times were changing. Chisel, on the other hand, opened his Friday night set by asking why the “Times Won’t Change” when “bullets from the West keep raining . . . elections but the leaders ain’t changin’ . . . lately they want to break the union away . . .” The minor chords at the start of the song provide a grey cloud of suspense while Jason Verstegen’s guitar follows with what sounds like a musical prelude to an old Western gunfighters’ duel– as if The Duke is patiently awaiting honest answers from an enemy or establishment before the townsfolk begin smelling gun smoke. Even without the Irish fiddle featured on the recording of “Times Won’t Change,” Chisel and the Wandering Sons clearly made their point while performing live at Houston’s legendary venue.

“I think people are getting tired of trusting in institutions. I think people are REALLY getting tired of trusting politicians. People are saying, ‘we’re done!’ I think [in the future] candidates will be scrutinized differently,” he said.

With a voice that sounds like whiskey and smoldering cigarettes, Chisel pleads with a former love in “Please Tell Me” to return to him now that he’s back “in the saddle for you Babe.” After his and Harris’ milky harmonious bridge, we learn that, unfortunately, “I heard the news” with Harris’ B-3 synth underscoring the disappointing heartbreak.

Chisel told the audience how he and the band had just performed in Baton Rouge the previous night. So “Gettin’ By” from their 2007 Little Bird seemed an appropriate choice for Harris to display her knack for emulating Cajun piano gods. Given the crowded floor, slow dancing to the 50’s rockabilly tune that is rich in Fats Domino chord progressions would have proved impossible!
In addition to Harris’ exceptional talents for harmony and keyboard, she showcased her solo voice in the 85 second-long “This Is How It Goes” prelude to the Old Believers signature song “I’ve Been Accused”. Her voice and enunciation might remind listeners of Sam Phillips, but with a younger, more crystalline quality. In fact, one Amazon reviewer of the Old Believers album asks that she sing more solos and record an album of her own one day soon.

ImageWe also were treated to a treasure from their 2009 Death Won’t Send A Letter. The power-driving organ that begins “Born Again” gives the song a southern gothic ambience before Chisel steps in to question the exclusionary rules in what is widely accepted dogma. In fact, the “Born Again” music video leaves a viewer wondering if the latest converts are convinced enough to take up serpents in the name of Old Testament faith. Nevertheless, Chisel finds common ground for all of us because “We all lose ourselves in the end” anyway. No matter what the belief, we all surrender to something.
At one point, Chisel sang a lovely tribute to one of his favorite songwriters by performing Tom Wait’s “Rosie” with only his acoustic guitar and a little harmony help from Harris. The audience went silent in fear that they might miss a word or a chord change. 

They concluded the night with the high steppin’ Southern Gospel “Over Jordan” tune that filled the audience with the same excitement of an old summertime tent revival. The Delta slide guitar and tambourine add to the spirit-filled charisma that itch the feet! If one can remain still for this song, there is something wrong with him! All are welcome to “Come on up to the house” where “we’re all just hangin’ out!” 

Check out their website and video clips at http://corychisel.com/ , but be careful! You might just become an Old Believer.