This week’s pick is a revisit of a 90’s album from a band that bucked popular music standards and set their own course with a mix of old-timey music and deep/dark spiritual lyrics. The music would not fit any particular scene but also capture the attention of many different scenes.
16 Horsepower – Sackcloth ‘n’ Ashes
Released February 6, 1996 via A&M Records
My Favorite Tracks – Black Soul Choir, American Wheeze, Harm’s Way
16 Horsepower was an American band comprised of singer and multi-instrumentalist David Eugene Edwards, Jean-Yves Tola on drums and Keven Soll on upright bass and cello. The band’s lineup would change over the years with the constant being Edwards at the helm.
One big issue with 16 Horsepower is categorizing their music. They aren’t country, though they did slot into the alt-country movement of the late 1990’s. The music has elements of country, bluegrass and other scenes but doesn’t necessarily have its own overall description. The term “Gothic Americana” has been used to describe them and is probably as accurate as anything. It is a lot of banjo, accordion and other unconventional instruments that shape the sound here.
The lyrics of 16 Horsepower were infused with Edwards’ religious upbringing. These aren’t overt “praise” songs or anything but there is definitely a religious bent to them. The music was not embraced by Christian outlets for not being standard praise fare and was also often dismissed in secular circles for talking about religion at all. But I don’t feel “preached to” when I listen to it, rather I feel like I’m getting a person’s own experiences and perspective communicated to me. I’m being sung to, not talked at.
The album is not overly long at 48 minutes but there are 13 songs to talk about. I am going to go through a lot of them very briefly to save space, but rest assured this is a highly recommended album from front to back.
I Seen What I Saw
It’s off to a hot start as a guy sees something that isn’t good, then gets on his horse and rides off. While any greater meaning isn’t obvious, this song is pretty powerful with the instrumentation and Edward’s vocal delivery.
Black Soul Choir
Next we have what is widely considered the “hit” off the album and one of the band’s most recognized songs. Black Soul Choir is a uptempo, banjo-driven piece that presents its religious underpinnings more clearly. This is a masterpiece of a song and is often the “first one” for many 16 HP fans. Metal band DevilDriver did a cover of this song in 2011 as well.
Scrawled In Sap
This is a very trippy and atmospheric track that gets into what appears to be an adulterous relationship. It’s very well done and another of my favorites from the record.
A very nice and twisted dirge about some whiskey and chairs, and also some kind of dust-up over something and a guy biting the big one in the end. This is a very dark and grimy track and far outside the bounds of “praise” music.
An upbeat number about a young man hoping he can hook up with any number of women. I can’t find the interview where Edwards talked about it, but if my memory serves, Ruthie was an actual girl from his childhood that he was sweet on.
This song is absolutely sick, meant in the best possible way. Another accordion-led dirge that gets to the failings of life and also the simple beauty of it. The lyrics are also quietly kind of brutal in spots, there’s some dark stuff going on here.
Another really good banjo piece with more, perhaps opaque, religious imagery. A clouded meaning does not deter from a very enjoyable song, though.
Heel On The Shovel
This song is, if not all the way there, at least directly next to country music. It’s a good ol’ tune about vengeance and death and “reaping what you sow.” The fate of the target is pretty grim, in a grave simply to be used as fertilizer for daisies. Such is life and death, I guess.
A very gripping tune about a guy off to a duel against someone who feels slighted. The specific grievance is not aired, but the narrator is prepared to die for his side of it.
Red Neck Reel
The music is fast and fun, but the lyrics are a fairly dour look at small-town life and how everyone knows everyone’s business. A nice tune either way.
Prison Shoe Romp
Almost a bit of a metal track here, or at least a pretty heavy tune though still steeped in the old time music.
Neck On The New Blade
Not really sure what’s going on lyrically but the song is another low-down one.
The album ends with a dirge about a condemned man who apparently really needs to be put down. The song ends with some references to Christ so I almost wonder if that’s not who it’s about but again, it’s a bit hard to tell.
Sackcloth ‘n’ Ashes was a brilliant debut full-length for the group that defied categorization and 1000% did their own thing. There is no chart or single information to share, 16 Horsepower were always a more underground and independent phenomenon. They would gain traction over in Europe through their run but were never a “hit” of any kind.
The main draw of this album and the 16 Horsepower catalog in general is the authenticity of the old-time sound. The music invokes the feel of the old days, this honestly sounds like what I’d expect to hear traveling through the desolate west. This isn’t a modern homage to music of the past, it is that music done in a modern setting. I can feel the dirt and grit of the landscape that these songs are set in, as well as the darkness of the songs and their weight.
16 Horsepower would run from 1992 through 2005. After their dissolution David Eugene Edwards would focus on his other project Wovenhand, which runs to this day and has performed 16 HP songs live in their sets. 16 Horsepower never achieved fame but they have been a known and celebrated act among those who remember them and the many, like me, who discovered them after their split. This is one of those acts that not a lot of people know, but those who know, know.
2 thoughts on “Album Of The Week – February 6, 2023”
Never heard of them before. Interesting sound.
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I’m with Johnny here also. Cool you discovered them after they split which goes to show you that the music will live on….
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