Mike Younger started recording Burning The Bigtop Down on January 15, 2001, cutting the first few tracks with two of the biggest legends in roots music, Luther Dickinson and Levin Helm. But shortly after, as the album progressed, Younger’s label eventually, inexplicably pulled the plug on the project.
In the years since, Dickinson passed away in 2009; Helms died in 2012, and lawyers for Younger and the label fought it out over broken contracts and a decent helping off fuck the artist and fuck his art, while you’re at it.
But, after hearing that the owner of the studio where the record was made had passed away as well, Younger tracked down the analog tape that housed the nine songs from his legacy, brought in the head of his musicians’ union to negotiate a deal, and the music was finally back in Younger’s hands. He put the final touches on the music in Nashville earlier this year, and the result is the remarkably satisfying Burning The Bigtop Down, an album that manages to be both timeless and remarkably of the moment.
It’s a perfect blend of blues, rock, and folk played with seemingly breezy execution that belie the brilliance of both the lyrics and the musicianship. To help add to the effect, Younger, Helms, and Dickinson brought in members of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, Bob Dylan’s band, the North Mississippi All Stars and Regina McCrary, of The McCrary Sisters, singing back up.
The title track—one of many stand out moments on this album—is taken from the 1944 Hartford Circus tent fire tragedy. Younger uses that event as a metaphor for our recent social upheaval. The record ends on “Desdemona,” a near-perfect, upbeat love song, slathered in a deep coating of swap organ.
Started two decades ago, this album is a triumph of dedication, perseverance, and unmatched stubbornness, and the music world certainly owes Younger a debt of gratitude for not letting it sit on a shelf a moment longer.