Dark times can often yield the most outstanding work. Walking the fine line between honky-tonk heroism and hand-sewn Americana, Lyman Ellerman culls together vast stylistic influences from the burnt, deeply-troubled edges of Townes Van Zandt to the polished but expansive approach of The Eagles. Having already shared stages with David Allan Coe, Dallas Moore, and Ward Davis, Ellerman is poised to reach the Americana-loving masses with his forthcoming record I Wish I Was A Train (out Aug. 10 via Woodshed Resistance Records), twisting his poetic grandeur into honestly grim reflections of addiction, loss, recovery and heartache.
“Sometimes I wish I was a train / Pulling memories and mothers, outlaws and lovers / I could disconnect the pleasure from the pain,” he sings on the titular cut, longing to be able to not feel much of anything. That unshakable anguish is pinned prevalently onto the album, yielding bone-crushing magnificence between the rustle of death and self-preserved liberation. Fleeting memories haunt him, and try as he might, he can’t seem to shake the past.
Ellerman is no ordinary man. He measures his heart in drops of pain, which bend and break off in his hands in various musical forms. “Fallin’,” co-written with Jeremy Holt, unravels a booze-induced tale of gypsy love, while “Shinin’ on Elizabeth” honors his wife with tender, rosy lyricism. “Because of You” is the oddball of the bunch, a razzle-dazzle blend of blues and jazz, built with only electric guitar, bass and drums.
Elsewhere, in one of his most visceral compositions, he steps into the role of “The Addict,” a swelling, acoustic-rendered mid-tempo dedicated to his late son, who struggled much of his adult life with drug addiction. “The absence of my fear, you try so hard to understand / Through this stained glass reflection of where I've been and who I am,” he sings, wandering ghost-like back through one particularly “baffling” conversation he had with his son. “At the time, he was using and trying to get me to accept him the way that he was,” he says. “Of course, I accepted him, but I told him I couldn’t really understand where he was coming from, from a clean person’s point of view.”
Banged-up and bruised, Ellerman came to a great understanding through turning his son’s indescribable pain into something tangible and real. The song itself was penned long before his son passed, and while he bares the brunt of that weight even more these days, there is a sliver of hope to be had. “He got to hear the song. I wasn’t going to do anything with it unless I had his OK. He thought it could help somebody. So, we decided to add it onto the record. I’m still hoping it can touch somebody along the way.”
Teaming up with long-time collaborator Jason Morgan, Ellerman settles into a rather dark place and allows himself to feel each emotional punch. I Wish I Was a Train barrels right for the heart. “The clock on the wall echos out of time with your steps down the hall / And each tick of the tock is like a bomb going off, reminds you how far you’ve gone wrong,” he wields on stunner “Nobody Knows You (Like I Do),” pacing the album with the delicate balance of gloom and hope. “Bigger Plans” chugs along at a brisker pace, electric guitars pumping on all cylinders. “When you tally your possessions, what will they buy you on that day / Will your prominence and stature keep you free from harm’s way,” he sings, a malevolent force clouding overhead. His voice is as sinister as it is somehow soothing, almost transforming into this all-knowing presence taking your hand and reassuring you everything will be OK in the end.
As is often his way, Ellerman let the songs guide him. The album has roots reaching back several years, with songs like “Here Comes Tomorrow,” which bookends the record with a shot of glistening optimism, finding their place is crucial to his journey. “There’s nothing that’s so bad that tomorrow can’t fix,” he says of the song, which sees the singer-songwriter chewing up the bad times to get to the good. “Get in my car and drive so far the highway can't let go / Out past the sun where wild horses run / They can't be saddled or broke,” he sings.
Ellerman’s story is your classic tale of a small-town boy from central Illinois with big dreams. He picked up a guitar in his mid-teens and played in his first band at 18, shaking up shows all over town. He headed down south to Mississippi and Louisiana to hone his songwriting ability. He found himself in Baton Rouge, holed up in a local studio, recording with Bee Gees bassist Harold Cowart, who helped him produce many of his earliest recordings. In between touring, Ellerman would visit Nashville and eventually made contact with a label executive of the now-defunct Universal South, a subsidiary of the much larger Universal Music Group.
Ellerman moved to Nashville permanently, and struck his first publishing deal in 2005. He went on to land more than 20 independent cuts on various fringe alt-country releases and collaborate with such mainstay songwriters as Marshall Tucker Band founding member and guitarist George McCorkle, Larry Steele (.38 Special), Buddy Brock (Tracy Byrd, Aaron Tippin), Wil Nance (Brad Paisley, George Strait), Bill Shore (Garth Brooks) and Keesy Timmer (Kelsea Ballerini). His song “Drink Your Wine” (from the Get Loose record) was featured in the 2016 award-winning independent film, Last Call at Murray’s, starring John Savage and Michael Gross. When the deal expired three years later, Ellerman turned his sights to stretching his creative wings as an artist, and as luck would have it, he befriended Jason Morgan, who went on to produce Ellerman’s next two albums.
I Wish I Was a Train is a natural progression of the duo’s collaborative efforts and spotlights a rather important artistic mile marker in Ellerman’s career. With a sturdy foundation of life experiences, Ellerman crafts a cohesively somber project while offering sage wisdom about life’s dark and winding roads. “If that road gets you in its ditches, boy, it’ll never let you go,” he remarks on a Merle Haggard-sized deep cut.
The charm not only lies in Ellerman’s phrasing but the hi-fi production quality, owed in large part to a respectful give and take in the studio. “Jason is really proficient. When it comes to ideas, he can arrange them up and steer me in a direction I wouldn’t have gone without him,” says Ellerman. “A lot of times, if I hear something in my head, melodically, and I don’t really feel like I can create that, he usually can. Then, I can add to that. It’s really been a labor of love.”