With his 2014 debut Road Songs, singer-songwriter Todd Sterling showcased the honky tonk side of his personality. Growing up in a house filled with music from the likes of Hank Williams, George Jones and Merle Haggard embedded deep storytelling roots in the budding songsmith. Sterling built his songwriting foundation on these sounds, along with the rock records his brothers brought home. It was the former soil Sterling farmed for his first solo release.
2017’s Pawnshop Guitar: A Poet’s Prayer found the singer-songwriter straddling the world’s of country and rock. Sterling says about the record: “If Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band teamed up to back Guitar Town-Era Steve Earle, this is what it would sound like filtered through my music junkie brain.” A big fan of songwriters like Earle, Springsteen, Seger and Rodney Crowell, among others, Sterling wanted to make a record that was “not quite country, not quite rock.”
Fast forward to 2020. Sterling digs even deeper in the creative dirt for Dark Horses:The Acoustic Sessions. A sparse collection – one guitar/one voice – the eleven track disc is starkly sketched. The songs, while not all necessarily drawn from Sterling’s life, were born out of tragedy and pain. From the chugging “El Camino,” about a man existing in a haze of alcohol and pills, to the closing stomp of “Alligator Shoes,” a commentary on the dark times we live in, The Acoustic Sessions is raw and real.
“Demons,” a nimbly fingered statement on the passage of time and the challenges that come with growing older (and growing up), stings like a harsh wind on exposed skin. Sterling laments the passing of youth and the losses that come with age as he peers wearily into the abyss. “Woke to grey in my beard and red in my eyes/ain’t it funny how fast the years slip by,” he groans. “I Write Songs” tells Sterling’s story. Writing since his early teens, the track sums up his addiction to words and melodies.
The ache that stalks even the strongest hearts is present throughout Dark Horses. The leaden “The Gunfighter,” about a cursed gunslinger making his final stand, and the despairing “Promised Land,” whose narrator is staring down the barrel of bad choices, expose the fine line between right and wrong. The latter was inspired by the loss of a longtime writing contract. Says Sterling, “I was feeling sorry for myself, then I thought about the people who have lost everything – even hope. It was sobering.”
It’s not all darkness on The Acoustic Sessions. “Love In A Hurricane” finds Sterling writing about an unshakeable couple who lived through Hurricane Katrina. The story of love and faith proves that if we look hard enough the light is always shining somewhere. The title cut is a spirited tale about a young couple who will not allow social class or outside forces to keep them apart. “We were dark horses/dark horses running into the wind, the soundtrack of life turned up to ten,” Sterling sings.
“This is the album I’ve wanted to make ever since I first picked up an acoustic guitar,” says Sterling. “I’ve played a lot of solo gigs over the years, and for me one guitar/one voice is the ultimate way to deliver a song. It doesn’t get much better for me.”
Art Rogers/Dark Highway Media