Tim Easton is nothing if not well traveled.
A heralded and prolific Americana song stylist, he grew up in Akron, Ohio, played regularly around New York City and set up a home for several years in the unlikely musical metropolis of Joshua Tree, Calif. He has never fully called Lexington home, but he has performed here regularly during the past two decades and tossed a few local ruminations into one of his best-loved performance tunes, Lexington Jail.
The music that brings Easton back to town for two shows this week, however, is the product of his newest hometown, Nashville.
But before you ask, let's set the record straight. His recording Not Cool, which will be released Tuesday, is not a country project. Take a listen, in fact, to the rootsy immediacy that dominates the 11 songs Easton rips through during the album's brisk and brief half-hour, and you will think Not Cool was cut in an entirely different part of Tennessee: Memphis.
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"I definitely wanted to make a record that was seriously roots-based and had that Memphis sound to it," Easton said by phone last week from yet another place where he has amassed a loyal fan base, Alaska.
"At the same time, though, we were in Nashville when we made the record," he said. "It was 2013. We said, 'Let's let the reality of who we are enter into the music. Let's see what each player can collectively bring.' The bass player was from Memphis. The guitar player was from Chicago. I'm from Akron. But we're all Nashville musicians that were cutting a session that day. So we set up the mikes, sat down and played the songs, and recorded.
"It wasn't a very overdub-centric project. With certain recordings, you just try not to fuss with things too much. You try to get the sound of a real band playing. I think we definitely succeeded in sounding like a trio/quartet playing country blues songs."
Easton was introduced almost by accident to two key compatriots of the Not Cool sessions: guitarist J.D. Simo and upright bassist Joe Fick. After noticing the stage door of the famed Ryman Auditorium opened into an alley that separated the venue from Robert's Western World, one of Nashville's most heralded honky-tonks, Easton caught a glimpse of the two players in action onstage. He quickly signed them up for Not Cool.
But such chance meetings aren't the product of serendipity, Easton said. In Nashville, such impromptu networking is standard operating procedure.
"People should understand that in a town like Nashville there are hundreds of great musicians, and they all like to work," he said. "They're eager to make records down there. That's how you do it. And doing three-chord country blues songs with J.D. Simo, Joe Fick and Jon Radford (the drummer for the Not Cool sessions) ... I mean, they can truly play that stuff any time of day. It just comes naturally to them. They could roll out of bed — and some days they literally did roll out of bed — and cut tracks like that."
Not Cool, happily, fails to live down to its name almost from the onset. On the album-opening Don't Lie, the song's nocturnally imbued story, along with Easton's sly telling of it, picks up on Simo's Slim Harpo-style guitar ambience as if it were a hitchhiker on a dark country side road. The mood brightens, though, for the rockabilly blasts of Troubled Times and Little Doggie (1962) before settling into the petulant groove of Gallatin Pike Blues.
The show-stoppers, though, are saved for last. Not Cool's title tune (clocking in at just over four minutes, making it the record's longest song) is a starker, more reflective mood piece — a folky, reverb-colored throwback to the New West albums Easton cut during the past decade that cemented his reputation as a champion songsmith.
But what makes the song even more magical is the way it bleeds into Not Cool's instrumental finale, Knock Out Roses — a fiddle tune that falls between a waltz and a Celtic reverie. An exquisite vehicle for fiddler Megan Palmer, who will accompany Easton at his two shows this week at Willie's Locally Known, the tune doubles as a lovely eulogy to The Band's Levon Helm.
"I have this strange ability to make up melodies for songs," Easton said. "I do it constantly. It's not a big issue for me. It just so happened that I was thinking about Levon that day. I went outside and I played my mandolin. I mean, Levon Helm. He was a mandolin player. He was a drummer, of course. And he was a great singer and everything. So I just started thinking about him, and that was the song that came out.
"I didn't think to myself, 'Oh, I need to put a fiddle song at the end of a rock 'n' roll record.' But on a later pass, I thought that maybe this would be a really nice way to finish the album."
IF YOU GO
When: 8 p.m. Aug. 22, 23. Easton will open for and sit in with the Kentucky Hoss Cats on Aug. 22 (free) and will headline, with Bluegrass Collective opening, on Aug. 23 ($10).
Where: Willie's Locally Known, 805 N. Broadway.
Learn more: (859) 281-1116, Willieslex.com