In 2016, veteran Palmetto State musicians Dave Britt and Bobby Sutton started Ashes Of Old Ways, a group that split the difference between ragged rock and mournful honky-tonk country right down the middle. In their music, crying pedal steel lines are as prominent as loud guitars.
The band’s new album, “Bottom of the Bottle,” picks up where their previous release, “From the Ashes,” left off. The title track opens the album and sets the tone. It’s a downbeat weeper that finds singer/guitarist Bobby Sutton self-medicating until he’s “back to the bottom of the bottle, fill it up again.”
That’s a classic country conceit, and there’s plenty of mournful pedal steel behind Sutton’s vocals, but the song unexpectedly hits a higher gear in the chorus, moving from ballad to rocker almost before the listener realizes it.
Sutton sounds like a broken, confused man on the first half of the album. Tracks like the mid-tempo rocker “Nowhere Fast” wallow in shame, and the bluesy, bottleneck-driven character study “Beautiful Wreck” paints a portrait of a woman in the same condition.
Southern rock twin-guitar lines fuel “Just Right Then It Hit Me,” the upturn in the album’s arc, where Sutton finds salvation in music before Britt tears off a solo saltier than barroom peanuts.
That epiphany fuels the rest of “Bottom of the Bottle.” “Time Don’t Wait” is a tribute to long-lasting friendship, “Pushing Up Daisies” finds a sort of blissful release in death, and the delicate, mandolin-spiked live cut “Cover Me” ends the album where it began, with Sutton fighting his demons — but he might have found some help: “Will you wait for me when I’m oh so hard to handle?” he sings over Adam Gould’s burbling mandolin and Cre Moore’s gentle percussion.
The lyrical journey of self-discovery might be a downer if it weren’t for the high-caliber musicianship on display here. The vocal harmonies are simply gorgeous, Moore and bassist Jamie Crisp are subtle, intuitive players, and the melodies are soothing even when the words aren’t.
But Sutton’s solo singing is problematic. He has a gentle, folk-singer-style voice, and it’s not really rough enough or powerful enough to make these songs about hard living feel lived-in.
He often comes off more as an observer than a protagonist, and that puts distance between him and the listener. All eight of the songs here are great country-rock tunes, with accomplished playing, thoughtful arrangements, and indelible melodies. But Sutton’s vocals can’t take this album from “very good” to “great.”
Ashes of Old Ways
Dec. 11. 6 p.m. Steel Hands Brewing. 2350 Foreman St. facebook.com/steelhandsbrewing.