Willy Mason is not a 70-year-old black man crooning about the past, present and future in his gravelly voice with only a mournful guitar strum to accompany him. I tell you this only because that’s what I expected when I first heard him perform during Noise Pop in 2004. He was already plucking his lonely, bluesy songs when I showed up, and before I saw the stage, I was certain that Rilo Kiley had tracked down some long lost blues player they had secretly worshipped for years, like some indie-rock Buena Vista Social Club.
So you can imagine my surprise when I turned the corner and spotted a mop-haired 19-year-old white kid standing by himself on stage. He ain’t no Bob Dylan (at least not yet), but his folk tunes have that same whimsical/philosophical bent that conveys a thoughtfulness and worldly curiosity way beyond his years. Whether he’s suggesting ways to better society or lamenting ruined relationships, his idealism and realism tug evenly, creating a careful snapshot of life through Willy Mason’s eyes. Equal parts hope and melancholy, Where the Humans Eat is an earthy debut that establishes Mason as an honest, refreshing songwriter.
Like David Dondero (though likely less influenced by alcohol), Mason is a traveler who meets, greets and writes songs about the people and situations he encounters. His parents are both musicians, and growing up in a creative environment makes his seamless incorporation of reality into music very natural. “All You Can Do,” the first stellar tune on the record, connects urban plight and modern cynicism with a plea for optimism. On passing a panhandler, Mason nails that false preoccupation we often use as an excuse to hurry past on “Hard Hand to Hold.”
His optimism peaks on “Oxygen”: “We can be richer than industry/ as long as we know that there’s things that we don’t really need/ We can speak louder than ignorance/ ‘Cause we speak in silence every time our eyes meet.” As he rattles off a series of problems and solutions, his frustration is evident, a fitting anthem for a nation stuck playing “red state, blue state” for the foreseeable future. He may not yet be qualified to speak for an entire generation, but he’s rapidly building his credentials (Obama-Mason ’08?). And he’s clearly not in it for the money: At a recent show, he ran out of CDs at the merch booth. Instead of calling it quits, he took down everyone’s address and promised to send them all copies when he got home. This is a man who wants his message heard, and if music like this will be carrying it, people will listen.