Throughout much of the 2000s, Don Merckle led the stomping Appalachian-Celtic group Loch Ness Johnny and, along with co-frontman Todd Mathis, the rollicking alt-country band American Gun. Between the two groups, he's released over a half-dozen albums and toured the Southeast as he's honed his increasingly distinct lyrical voice and bare-knuckle performance style.
But since parting ways with American Gun following 2009's Devil Showed Me His Hand, the Charleston-based Merckle has found himself a bit out of sorts, shuffling through a string of different lineups and band names. So he just decided to simplify things.
Last year, he and his backing band released The Pugilist — a collection of laid-back takes on new and old tunes with stripped-down, mostly acoustic instrumentation. The record marks the first time the veteran musician has released an album under his own name.
"I was having a hard time keeping a band together — the same people in a band anyway. The band kept rotating members, so the band was never the same. When people left, the sound changed," Merckle recalls. "I thought if I just went under my own name, since I was writing all the songs, I could break that up. I could do full band, three-piece, solo, whatever. It becomes one identity to play under."
The choice also had the added advantage of placing the emphasis on Merckle as a singer/songwriter, something often overshadowed by the rambunctiousness of his prior groups. And while there are traces of those old outfits in The Blacksmiths, which include Loch Ness Johnny's Chris Lawther on banjo and Kevin Pettit on bass, there's also a clearer sense of low-stakes arrangements and no-frills flexibility that wasn't present in the past. That's because they've also added a minimalist two-drum set-up played by Stan Gardner, who performs standing upright.
"I wanted to simplify the rhythm section," explains Merckle. "I didn't want to bring a bunch of stuff. I wanted to go play anywhere. It also felt like the more acoustic the instruments, the more attention to the songs. And it's really been more about the songs than it's ever been, keeping them right on the forefront."
There's also, he notes, just something fun about losing the traditional drum kit. "It provides a lot of energy," he says. "Whenever I turn back and look at Stan, and he's standing there, it seems more energetic than if he was sitting behind a kit."
Still, the songs are the main focus. The Pugilist draws liberally from both Merckle's American Gun and Loch Ness Johnny catalogs, but even the new tunes seem to look backwards. "The Ballad of an Angry Man" is a wizened glance at a lifetime of heartbreak and disappointment, while even the jaunty, more-hopeful "On My Own" declares, "When I think about the way things should have gone/ I'm still out here on my own."
Much of Merckle's earlier work was just as dark, but most of what's here seems designed to complement those themes, like the barreling "Fight Song" or the gritty navel-gazing of "Make You Happy." His songs also have the advantage of showing off his range, with everything from the punk-indebted paean to The Velvet Underground, "The Underground," to the passionate reading of the traditional Irish sea shanty "Leaving of Liverpool" included.
Merckle admits he's at an "introspective moment." He's been busy writing songs for a new album, a concept record about his grandparents that he calls a "classic American love story." He was initially drawn to the idea of writing about his grandfather, a war hero who fought in Korea, but soon felt the urge to include his grandmother and their life together.
"It's about my grandparents, but more importantly it's about family," he says. "I've been thinking a lot about family lately, and whether that's what my future should be."
For a songwriter who has spent the better part of the last 15 years hustling from gig to gig, the writing process has been a bit of a revelation for Merckle, who had written mostly autobiographical songs or genre exercises in the past.
"It was a bit of a challenge. There's not a lot of people alive to give me the full story of their lives," he points out. "I had to create some stories around some of the holes. It's all mostly factual, but to weave the songs together I had to create more of a storyline to make it all work."
Merckle's still working out plans to record these new songs, but he believes it will be an even quieter affair than The Pugilist. "It's going to be even more about the songs and whatever I think they need," he hypothesizes. "I'm not necessarily going to need everybody in the band on every song — this is more of a solo album, mainly guitars and piano and maybe some horns."