We here at Kentucky Country Music are proud to give the world it’s first listen to the debut album from southern Ohio’s own Nic Allen and the Troubled Minds, titled “On the Hilltop”. Nic has been a fixture in our regional scene for a few years, cutting his teeth at backroad honky tonks and music festivals. With our region producing the best music the last few years, it is no surprise that this album follows suit.
“On the Hilltop” album is a gumbo of old-school country, alternative, blues, and southern rock. It is a soundtrack to nights full of cheap beer, low-lit dives, and bad decisions. The tracks are a sonic equivalent of a hazy, early morning look in the mirror after 3 hours of sleep and a night full of regret. But it is in those instances that give the listener the ability to appreciate their own mistakes and change their life for the better.
Nic’s voice is powerful and pairs perfectly with themes and music throughout the album. From start to finish, is masterfully produced, and is chock full of choruses that are perfect to sing along to. While some of the tracks sometimes have a tendency to sound overly similar, there’s enough variety to keep the listener engaged and interested throughout. For a debut album for an up and coming artist, it’s an extremely impressive introduction.
The album opens with the twangy “For Heaven’s Sake,” a drunk man’s realization of who he is, and a desperate plea for some divine intervention in his life. It’s a relatable theme for everyone in some way or another, and this is one of many songs where spirituality (or its absence) is bubbling just under the surface. “I’ve been drinking all night / There’s no life behind my eyes / Won’t somebody come and save me for heaven’s sake…”
“Nothing to Hold” is one of the most powerful tracks on the album, and recounts a love gone bad with a world crashing down around the main character. The emotion overflows with the chorus “My days they fade / the light shines no more / the bottle stays the same, lying empty on the floor”. Anyone who’s ever lost someone they cared about will be immediately drawn to the sheer emotion of this track.
“Cheap Pills” opens with a bassline overlayed with several guitar licks, then quickly jumps into a rousing, back-alley romp about the consequences of venturing to the wrong side of the tracks. It’s littered with the lies we tell ourselves to cope with things in all the wrong ways. The song includes an absolutely hell-raising guitar solo, and the backing piano is perfectly inserted in all the right spots. “Sell out your soul / Make it easier to buy / Sell out your name / Make it easier to find.”
“Living This Way” opens with a father’s advice to his son to “That’s what daddy told me / Keep your nose clean and look to the cross for peace / But that don’t help me with life anymore”. It’s about a young man’s struggle to overcome; wishing he could find meaning in his father’s words and desperate to find a way to see his problems through. Instead of religion, the character turns to a vice to try and forget, and finding that road helps him to cope better, ever-conscious of the fact that road leads nowhere in the end. It’s a reminder for everyone to choose their own path in life, and that sometimes we travel down the dark path because we feel it’s the only one that’s suited for us to tread. And despite knowing the end result won’t be good, taking it anyway.
The title track, “On The Hilltop,” is a lament of being alone with your thoughts while missing the one you love. After the first few verses, the song opens up with beautiful piano melody accompanied by soft guitar notes, and you realize that the lover the song’s narrator is describing has passed. As the bridge tugs at your heartstrings, “Time will ease all pain I know / But that don’t make things easier tonight / Oh how I wish you could be here by my side”, it effortlessly segways into a beautiful guitar solo then back into the chorus. The song is one of the standouts on the album and showcases Nic as one of the region’s most talented songwriters.
“Home” is a passionate track that implores outside intervention on the life that the main character is leading, and realising that every heart looks to heal in a place they find familiar. The chorus of the song soars with that sentiment: “I hate what I’ve become / And I hate what I once loved / Oh honey I wish we could return back home”.”
“Worthless Man” is a slow-tempo lament about dreams gone astray and the inability to get those dreams back. It gives the listener a deep look at a character trapped in his own despair. The character admits mistakes made and the price that has to be paid from those mistakes. Like several other of Nic’s songs, it details the character’s talk with God, and also giving all who listen to it a warning: “But I can tell you my friend, it’s not worth it in the end / Oh the flames still burn the same, no matter how tall.”
“Killing You Slow” may be my personal favorite track on the album. The organ gives the song this incredible atmosphere in the background, and the guitar throughout the verses have this perfect, old school Johnny Cash sound. Like most of the tracks on the album, it has a big, memorable, sing-along chorus. The ending of the song is perfection, a huge mashup of guitar and organ solos before going back into the chorus one last time. “Be careful son, you’ll reap what you sow / And I know, it’s killing you slow.”
“Buffalo Creek” is a bluesy number about a man’s final resting place. For an album that is littered with characters down on their luck and doomed to a life of sorrow of their own making, this track shows hints of acceptance and anticipation of what’s beyond. “Oh I know, it’s a hard pill to swallow / To see your friends come to an end / But I look on the hilltop tonight to see if its burning / I hope it’s burning bright”. The bridge and ending chorus on this song showcases Nic’s vocal prowess, and the fuzzed-out solo in the outro is the perfect close to the song. The song is another strong contender as one of the albums best.
“Just a Drink” is a slow tempo tear-jerker, chock full of slide guitar, organ, and of course Nic’s signature croon. In it, the character turns to the bottle to escape the harsh realities of living alone. The bridge is especially powerful: “We all know that there’s light at the end of the tunnel / Sometimes it’s hard to see / And I feel more alone without you in my life / And I’m gonna drink til I’m fine / ‘Til I’m fine…”.
“Waste Of Time” closes out the album as a soulful ballad recalling the hardships of loves that die slow deaths. It’s a perfect way to end the album, because as the only acoustic track, it perfectly showcases the power of Nic’s voice. “Its gonna be a lonesome haul into the setting sun / But we’ll run and find safe cover / I still love you the same, but I wish I don’t / And I love the same but you say you don’t / And every day seems to be just a waste of time because you waste it all on me”.
Guest contributor, Jon Grace, currently serves as Tourism Director with the Bell County Tourism in Kentucky. Jon helps organize the Middlesboro Levitt AMP concert series, providing musical entertainment across multiple genres. In his free time, he enjoys attending concerts with his wife, as well as entertain others with his Audio Outlaws broadcast every Monday from 8-10pm on WRIL. The broadcast features outlaw and classic country, Americana, bluegrass, southern rock and and blues. Jon has contributed several stories to Kentucky Country Music to help highlight the best festivals, concerts, albums, and adventures from here in Kentucky.