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20 May 09 Album Review: Mike Darnell – The Promised Land

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mikedarnell-promise-landMike Darnell brings us an offering of the “flues” as he calls it – a combination of Folk and the Blues.  Like much of Texas music, it’s really the confluence of the many events, people and music that have impacted Darnell.  He moved around the country as a youth and was impacted by folk and rock that he heard.

Darnell counts “…Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds, Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Jim Messina, Roger McGuinn, Dan Fogelberg, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan…” as musicians that early on influenced him.  You can hear a bit of each of these in his music.   His album features songwriting that tells a story and provides rich instrumentation from a small number of instruments.

Vocal harmonization plays an important part in Darnell’s music. “Baby, It’s A Long Way Home”, “Old 982”, “The King of Barataria”, “Delia” and “Slow Down” all feature exceptional vocal work from the likes of T. C. Smythe and Gary Taylor (, Richard Gaudette, Mark Gillick, and Bill Aspinwall (see the Texas Music Journal article on Aspinwall & Friends, “Free Range Trout”).  With a small number of instruments and the excellent djembe and cajon work of Peter Gruezmacher, each artist makes a big contribution to each song. 

Speaking of Bill Aspinwall, Darnell tells us in his biography how he, Mike Crippen, and Bill began playing together.  “With the turn of the century and new interest in music, I ventured out to take a few lessons and meet some other players. It was at an informal gathering of guitar pickers (Guitar Circle) with similar musical intentions that I met Mike Crippen and Bill Aspinwall. Similar musical backgrounds yet distinct styles drew us together and we began to meet more often to trade songs. And these guys knew their way around the fret board! We each began to write songs and with the encouragement from our Guitar Circle friends and families we played a few gigs. The trio, “Big Lizard Boys”, was born. In 2005 we recorded the album, “Pick Yourself Up”, engineered and co-produced by Houston music legend, Jack Saunders.” 

Darnell has two previous albums, “The Last Mango in Harris” and “It Takes Two to Mango” which he self-recorded and produced.  “The Promised Land” was engineered and co-produced by Lloyd Daniel of Songbrush Sound.  As in Bill Aspinwall’s “Free Range Trout”, Daniel shows why musicians like Darnell refer to him as “The Dalai Lloyd”.  He is a master of producing the best with musicians.  

Each track on the album emphasizes the musical influences in Darnell’s past.  Two tracks take us back to the musical storytelling of an earlier age.  “Old 982” tells us the story of the wonderful old locomotive as it retired from a lifetime of service to be placed on display in Houston’s Hermann Park in 1957.  The essence of this song is the final move of the locomotive to Union Station:  “she’s come back to where it started…can’t you hear the whistle blowing.” 

Another interesting story is “The King of Barataria”: the story of Jean Lafitte and the privateers that operated out of the Bay of Barataria at the turn of the 19th century.  It is an interesting part of American history and Darnell does the story well through his lyrics and instrumentation.  Kristen Jensen’s fiddle work in this song and in “Slow Down” provides interesting dimension to the instrumentation hinting at a touch of southeast Texas, a touch of swamp and even a touch of emotion with its wailing undertone.   

The title track, “The Promised Land” provides us hints of Seals and Croft and perhaps a bit of early Simon and Garfunkel.  An interesting aspect of this track is the accordion work of Don Magdill which provides a musical counterpoint to the flues vocal and guitar work with zydeco style emphasis.  The overall effect works well. 

Another interesting track is “Delia” featuring the harmony vocals of Bill Aspinwall.  The song is the tragic tale of a woman leaving town for Hollywood:  “It’s a long from nowhere to Hollywood.  Talk’s so cheap and the money sounds so good. Don’t believing  everything you’re told, everything that glitters isn’t gold. “ The song has strong guitar work that emphasizes the tragic nature of the song.

Overall, “The Promise Land” is an album that highlights Mike Darnell’s attention to lyrical detail and his ability to draw the most out of a minimalist approach to instrumentation.  His folk and blues influences shine throughout the album.  “The Promise land” delivers on the promise of good music and good musicians.  

Further information about Mike Darnell and his music can be found at his website:

“The Promise Land” is available at   At My Texas Music, one can also purchase Mike’s previous albums, “The Last Mango in Harris” and “It Takes Two to Mango”, as well as the Big Lizard’s Boys, “Pick Yourself Up”. 


1. Baby, It’s a Long Way Home**
2. Cold Wind
3. Old 982**
4. The Promise Land**
5. Rainbow’s End
6. Mr. T
7. Boquillas
8. The King of Barataria**
9. Delia **
10. Slow Down **
11. Ike
12. Gus’ Blues

(Notable Tracks denoted by **)


Mike Crippen:  Banjo
Richard Gaudette:  Harmony vocals
Walter Bryant: Bass
T. C. Smythe and Gary Taylor: Harmony vocals
Don Magdall: Accordian
Mark Gillick:  Harmony Vocal 
Peter Gruezmacher: Cajon and Djambe
Bill Aspinwall: Harmony Vocal
Kristen Jensen: Fiddle
Lloyd Daniel: Electric Guitar

Co-produced and recorded by Lloyd Daniel, Songbrush Sound, Tomball, Texas. Daniel also supplied some fine guitar work on “Slowdown”.

Singers/songwriters or bands that would like their album reviewed can send 2 CDs and their contact information to our office (Texas Music Journal, 8920 Pocono Dr., Plano, TX 75025).  We try to get the album reviewed within 5- 7 days of receipt. That gives us time to review the music and contact the artist for short interviews related to their music. As all albums are peer reviewed, we have two people review every album then compare and contrast notes.

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