My first impression of American Jackpot / American Girls was that it was going to be a political cash-grab. This is Reckless Kelly’s tenth studio album, and they’ve been around since 1998. They’re not a particularly famous bunch, although they have found moderate success on country-specific charts. So here come these country music vets, putting the statue of liberty on the cover during an election year, with the word “American” plastered all over the title, and releasing it the Friday before Memorial Day. All of these apparent context clues help to elucidate my initial views that this would be Reckless Kelly’s bid to create the country version of American Idiot, although listening to American Jackpot / American Girls has elicited a very different response than I was anticipating.
American Jackpot / American Girls is barely a political record at all. Sure, occasional references surface because it’s 2020, and the personal is political, but if there is an overarching “concept” to the record, it’s immersion in the grassroots of America. Reckless Kelly observe the everyday struggles and triumphs of the merely average. Perhaps the best summary can be found on ‘Grandpa Was a Jack of All Trades’, an ode to the traditional hard-working breadwinner in what could be coined as “simpler times”: “Grandpa was a jack of all trades / He never once met a stranger, he mowed yards and fixed fence, he always helped out the neighbors, he never wasted a cent, he could tend a good garden, he could sharpen a blade, he made a pretty good omelette / Grandpa was a jack of all trades.” Sure, this could be interpreted as a little bit tongue-in-cheek – particularly the line about never meeting strangers – but frontman Willy Braun’s sincerity is made clear, especially when he sings, “He once was a fireman and he saved a few lives, he was there at Pearl Harbor, thank God he survived / And when the fighting was over, he came home to the home of the brave, a true American hero / Grandpa was a jack of all trades.” There’s very little underlying intent, nor a complex metaphorical takeaway – it’s just a heartfelt tribute to those who helped build the foundation of the United States.
Much of the record treks a similar path, waxing poetic about the simplicities of Americana. The pristinely acoustic ‘42’ is about a baseball jersey, the piano and string laden ‘Goodbye Colorado’ is a homecoming/farewell to the west coast, ‘American Girls’ could be chalked up to Reckless Kelly’s ‘California Girls’ (“I’ve been around the world and they ain’t got nothin’ on ya / there’s nothin’ like them American girls”), and the sparkling guitars of ‘Tom Was a Friend of Mine’ announces the loss of a close acquaintance (“I was driving when the grapevine broke the news…Then silence filled the air like there would never be another sound again”). American Jackpot / American Girls celebrates the bare threads that make up the United States, for better or worse, and Braun’s uniquely personal lyrics help us connect to his world.