In song and history, Pembroke’s Matt York pays homage to the Highwaymen


Jay N. Miller

Earl Pembroke Matt York among the musicians and artists who have taken advantage of the lockdowns and quarantines of the pandemic to produce new materials and ideas. York wrote a few dozen new songs, reached out to other musicians he admired, and put together an album that has the most expansive sound of anything he has ever done.

Meanwhile, as he contemplated returning to performing, York reflected on which artists had influenced him the most and how he could fit that into something new. The result was his series of shows “Songs and Stories: The Highwaymen”, where he performed songs from the legendary quartet of Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, while adding biographical details and stories about the four. stars.

Pembroke's Matt York performs one of his Highwaymen shows at 6 p.m. on Thursday, November 4 at the Hanson Public Library.

York presents one of its Highwaymen shows at 6 p.m. on Thursday, November 4 at the Hanson Public Library. York will also present the Highwaymen program in the town where he grew up when he plays at the Foxboro Public Library on Sunday, November 7.

York will perform its usual shows of original songs and covers on November 9 at Chopp’s American Bar & Grill in Burlington, then at Off the Rails in Worcester on November 18 and Brewery 44 in Carver on November 19.

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“I had lost my day job when the pandemic started, and I was also thinking about the fact that there are a lot less clubs to play original music,” York said. “I love the music of these four guys so much that I thought about what I could do. I’ve played parties at places like The Porch in Medford, where I do two or three hours of country music, as many covers as my own songs.

“I had also noticed in my trips to Nashville and Austin (Texas) that Johnny Cash is everywhere in Nashville and Willie is everywhere you look in Austin,” York said. “But those other two guys aren’t that prominent. I really felt like Waylon and Kris were underrepresented.

“I read all the bios of these guys I could find, saw all the documentaries and heard other stories in Nashville or Austin. I thought it was something I could put together into a really show. interesting and informative. They all had The Highwaymen, yet it was four people who had their own careers. They all posted so much material that I can make a different setlist each time. ”

“The affection continues” for highwaymen

York started doing Highwaymen shows in May and found a ready audience, but also a new demographic.

“I’ve presented the Highwaymen show in libraries, churches, senior citizens’ centers and places like this and it’s been a lot of fun,” York said. “I’m not trying to emulate any of these guys and I’m trying to give everything my own turn. But it’s been really cool the way people want to come see me afterwards and talk about these four singers and what they meant to them. I have had more than one woman come to me to confide in me that she would never have been able to get her husband out of the couch and out of the house without a show like this. … where I play mostly for people in their twenties and thirties in music clubs, for this show, it distorts the older people, people of the generation of these four guys, but there is such a continued affection for their music.

Pembroke singer Matt York

York applied for cultural grants and thought about expanding the concept.

“I reached out to the churches, in particular, to do an hour-long program of all these guys and their faith songs,” York said. “They all made songs that reflected their faith and that’s an important part of their job. They’ve all had issues that they’ve worked with as well, so I explored doing another one-hour show focused on rehab and talking and playing songs they all wrote about it. .

Satisfied fans of Project Highwaymen have suggested other potential York programs.

“Several people have suggested that I put on a Traveling Wilburys show,” he said. “I love Bob Dylan, so doing that might be another great idea.”

“Where the hard part begins”

For his own original music, York has the new album, “Where the Hard Part Starts”, which is due out in the next month. Recorded at Bitch Kitty Studios in Jamaica Plain earlier this year, with production from TJ Wenzl, it features York with a full band on most tracks.

He is joined by Taylor Hollingsworth (Bright Eyes) on lead guitar, Spencer Cullum Jr. on pedal steel, Dillon Warnek on piano, Joshua Hedley on violin and Tim Dineen on drums. They are the most versatile band York has ever had behind them, and although they have the most country sound of any record he has ever made, they also display a wide range of styles in the country genre. / Americana general.

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“Previously, I had failed to play violin and steel pedals on my records like I did here,” York explained. “I don’t think the songs on my previous records were less country, but with the steel pedal and the violin here, these songs just sound more country. I think they all fall under the same umbrella of country, country-rock or Americana music. I had basically finished a record before the pandemic, and then found myself writing more than ever during the pandemic. I think the pre-pandemic songs on this album are the most rock. “

The musicians on the new album come from all over the United States, and York gave in to his wish list of musicians he had heard or known to bring them together, at least virtually, to improve the music. He not only had lost his day job when the pandemic started, but his father was in poor health during that time, so music became not only a creative outlet, but also an emotional refuge.

Pembroke's Matt York performs one of his Highwaymen shows at 6 p.m. on Thursday, November 4 at the Hanson Public Library.

The first track, “If You Want Love,” is a casual, almost Western, two-step swing.

“I think one of them has an almost Grand Old Opry sound,” York said, referring to Nashville’s most famous venue. “My dad was in hospice care and I wrote this song in this house one day. Usually when I’m sad I write sad songs, but this song sounds upbeat. It just happened like that. Despite all the free time to write during the pandemic, I didn’t write at first. But in the end, I couldn’t stop and I pounded about twenty songs.

As the album unfolds, its variety becomes evident. “Up and Down” could be a cosmic cowboy cut off from Doug Sahm’s heyday. “Gently Used” presents Warnek’s piano, with a kind of Willie Nelson in the manner of Townes Van Zandt. The smooth flow of “Baby Doll” is a contemporary groove-centric sound, overlapping contagious guitar lines from Hollingsworth. “Let’s Try Failure” is a kind of love story with beautiful vocal harmonies.

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“I think I’ve always been in the old dark country,” York said. “Some of my touch points are Willie Nelson and Townes Van Zandt, but I’ve also gone deeper into writers like Johnny Paycheck. I love their lyrics and all that style, so ‘Up and Down’ reflects all of that. On ‘Gently Used’, when I heard Dillon’s own album, it blew me away how good it was. I recorded ‘Gently Used’ with myself, solo on guitar, and then j asked Dillon to play the piano on top of it, maybe my favorite song from the whole album.

“Strong Feelings” centers on acoustic guitar and violin as the singer ruminates on relationships in a sweet ballad that might evoke comparisons to Kristofferson or Nelson. But its genesis is closer to Pembroke.

“This one came out of a joke I have with my two teenage daughters,” York said with a laugh. “Every time they leave the house and say ‘I love you, daddy,’ I tend to say, ‘And I have strong feelings for you.’ I decided to turn this line into a song, I hope not really depressing, but Joshua’s violin really brought this song to life.

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Among the other notable new points of the album, York uses the falsetto to enhance a few cuts, and the sung backing vocals that make “Scent of Sin” sound like the pop guitar of the 1960s-70s.

“I released ‘Scent of Sin’ as a single about a year and a half ago, and it ended on the same day the NBA ended its season due to the pandemic,” York said. “I used the vocal harmonies a lot more on this record, and I like the way it came out. These voices of harmony are all me.

See Matt York play

  • 6 p.m. Thursday, November 4 at the Hanson Public Library, 132 Maquan St., Hanson; register on
  • 2 p.m. Sunday, November 7 at the Boyden Library, 10 Bird St., Foxboro;
  • November 9 at Chopp’s American Bar & Grill, 1 Burlington Mall Road; 781-221-6643.
  • November 18 at Off the Rails, 90 Commercial St., Worcester;
  • November 19 at brasserie 44, 2 rue Montello, Carver;

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