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By Geoffrey Himes

In his early 60s, an age when most singer-songwriters have been in decline for a decade or more, Jim Patton has improbably deepened and broadened his art. For his new album with his wife and longtime musical partner Sherry Brokus, The Great Unknown, Patton has crafted 10 new songs that do more than explain himself to his listeners; these songs explain those listeners to themselves. For many years Patton has shined a revealing light on his own past and the inside of his own head. But with this record, he aims his flashlight into other skulls and into the future. The Great Unknown, indeed.

The new album begins with one of his best-ever songs, “On the Day I Leave This World,” which allows him to imagine his eventual, inevitable death. It’s a surprisingly humble song; it doesn’t describe that death as a momentous event but rather as another turning of the page. Some friends will be sad, but dogs will go on chasing squirrels as they’ve always done; “This merry-go-round will keep on spinning.” That balance of sadness and naturalness is tricky to capture, but Patton does it not only in his writing but in his vocal as well.

Patton’s willingness to climb inside other people’s heads has created an expanded role for Brokus in the duo’s music. For the first time on one of their albums, she takes more lead vocals than he does, and her long career as a therapist allows her to convincingly assume the personas of the troubled narrators of “Drown” and “I’m Alright Now.” Neither she nor her husband have ever suffered the addiction and trauma of these two men, but they’ve been close enough to understand it and articulate it as the men themselves never could.

There are similar songs about ex-lovers who can’t let go, brow-beaten children who can’t forget, middle-aged rock’n’rollers who won’t give up. All these characters want to reach new territory, unknown and perhaps greater than anything they’ve known, before the day they leave this world. “It’s easy to show when someone has a problem and when someone has overcome the problem,” Brokus says, “but it’s getting from point A to point B that’s hard to describe.” But that’s just what Patton and Brokus capture in these songs, thanks in large part to the terrific Texas musicians who frame their voices: producer Ron Flynt, lead guitarist Mary Cutrufello, mandolinist Marvin Dykhuis, fiddler Warren Hood, cellist Julie Carter and percussionist John Bush


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