“I spend a lot of my time waiting,” Derik Hultquist says. “Waiting on life, waiting on a word, waiting on women. Waiting on myself. There is something I want to access. I’m trying to find poetry, and the only way I know how to do it is to just be as honest and patient as possible.” He pauses, then adds dryly, “And tell a couple of jokes.”
Biding time and searching for answers often conjure up of images of sparseness––long, barren stretches in between key moments. But on his new album Southern Iron (Carnival Music), Hultquist offers rich portraits of reflection, anticipation, and stillness via lush rock-and-roll that suggest waiting isn’t a mere segue: it’s living.
Hultquist grew up just south of Knoxville in Alcoa, Tennessee, a small town in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. He taught himself to play guitar on his dad’s old instrument––“It was just the worst guitar,” Hultquist characteristically deadpans in his East Tennessee drawl. “When I first started playing, you could only make a couple of chords on it. So I had to just write my own songs from the get-go.”
The remark is signature Hultquist: part self-deprecating wit, part sincere observation about the power of working with what you’ve got.
Hultquist attended Kentucky Wesleyan College, where he served as goalie for the men’s soccer team. When he headed to Nashville after graduation almost a decade ago, the move was not spurred by a conscious decision to pursue music professionally. He wasn’t interested in joining the storied ranks of staff writers who create hits for the city’s mainstream country music machine, but he did want to develop the sounds and lyrics that had always busied his mind. “I’ve sung my whole life. I think I wrote my first song when I was in middle school,” he says. “It just seemed like the natural thing to do.”
So Hultquist took flexible jobs ranging from pharmacy tech to valet and focused on finding his voice. He has since released three EPs via Carnival Music and Recording Company, his longtime home. His most recent EP, 2014’s well-received Mockingbird’s Mouth, earned him widespread attention and opening slots for complementary heavy hitters including Sturgill Simpson. Produced by Frank Liddell and Eric Masse, Southern Iron is Hultquist’s first full-length album, and a highly anticipated deeper, longer listen to an artist who, up until now, has primarily offered intriguing snapshots.
“I didn’t find my singing voice until my early 20s,” Hultquist says. “Before that, I would just sing like everybody, whoever I was trying to imitate.” It’s easy to imagine him playing the chameleon, channeling neo-soul singers and post-punk heroes before relaxing into himself. “Now my voice comes out of the songs I write. That’s the best way I know to explain it,” he says. “I just try to find the most earnest way I can to sing.” Honesty sounds good on him: Hultquist’s mellow tenor is easy but plush, forgoing flash in favor of subtlety. That’s not to say he doesn’t enjoy the occasional surprise attack, carried out via moody escalations and gravelly, provocative whispers.
Southern Iron flirts with psychedelic and roots rock without committing, carving out its own robust pop soundscape. Hultquist wrote all but one of the album’s songs alone, and the result captures a songwriter wholly comfortable with his calling, more drawn to evocation than linear narrative. “I’m very interested in what a song can do,” he says. “Often, I think a song hasn’t achieved its full potential. I’m trying to find that balance between creating a song that’s important and compelling to listen to.”
First track “Darkside of Town” sets the bar high, illustrating just how good Hultquist is at balancing substance and a hook. The song combines crunchy guitar with a rumbling meditation on knowledge, faith, and acceptance. “A lot of what we do here on this planet of ours is just like groping through the dark,” Hultquist says. “You’re trying to figure it out and take the good with the bad. And there is not necessarily any balance––people often think there’s got to be good and evil in equal parts. But it’s just life. It doesn’t need to mean anything. It is how it is, and that should be powerful enough.”
The idea that life’s power is derived from its existence instead of our interpretation of it fuels much of the album. While that’s heady stuff, Hultquist proves that life for the sake of life is also a formula for a good time: rollicking “1983” and “Racing to a Red Light”––the second of which is the only co-written song on the album––dare listeners to try not to dance.
The gorgeous “Strangeness of the Vine” contemplates being single again––“being re-released into the wild,” Hultquist jokes. He tackles love honestly, refusing to let anyone––including himself––off the hook. “They say no one ever does, that only fools fall down and get back up / so I made fools of both of us, cause I keep falling out of love,” he sings sadly in “Falling Out of Love,” while in “Back When I was Young,” Hultquist goes toe-to-toe with the memories we’ll never be able to shake.
“One Horse Town” explores the ways in which place defines and even limits us. Hultquist wrote the song with Nashville in mind. “I keep toughing it out,” he says. “I’ve had some thin years, and maybe more to come. But I made up my mind that I was going to do this, and I do feel I have a place here.”
Haunting album closer “American Highway” leaves listeners contemplating awareness and escape routes. “Stuck out on the American highway / with a capo on my vein / Now I think I’m only hiding, right here in the light of day,” Hultquist sings, his voice echoed by a chorus of strings. “You can’t really think out there, driving,” he says. “The movement itself kind of pulls you into thinking you’re being active. It’s like a Cormac McCarthy novel. There is no end to forever––you just keep going and going.” Hultquist reveals that on the road, lulled into numbness masquerading as action, it’s easy to hide not just from others, but also from yourself.
In the end, Hultquist has plenty of questions. But while he is constantly reaching for the wisdom to know when to wait and when to act, he is far from lost. “I know a few things,” he says. “I know that beautiful things are worth noticing. You’ve got to be kind, for the most part. And you never know what’s going to happen.”