Freed from 20 Years in Limbo, Mike Younger’s Burning the Big Top Down Delivers the Soul
In 2001, singer-songwriter Mike Younger was set to make his second album and everything seemed to be going his way. His 1999 debut, Somethin’ In The Air, produced by Rodney Crowell, had been a critical success and for the follow-up, Younger recruited legendary Memphis musician, producer, and larger-than-life character Jim Dickinson. Over four days in January 2001, Younger and Dickinson tracked the album with a group of musicians that read like a who’s who of American roots music — drummer Levon Helm, keyboardist Spooner Oldham, bass player David Hood, and guitarist Luther Dickinson.
On the final day of recording, just as they were finishing the basic tracks for nine songs, word came that Younger’s record label was in financial trouble and was closing up shop. Younger moved on to other labels and new albums while his “lost album” remained stuck in a legal limbo and tape vault purgatory.
In 2017 however, Younger regained the rights to the album along with the original master tapes and began a process of completing the record. The result, Burning the Big Top Down, is an impressive achievement and one that seems to be the completion of a cycle not only for Younger but for a 20-year span of time that began with the pre-9/11 Bush era and closes in the post-Trump, COVID landscape.
That sense of fin de siècle is expressed most overtly in two key songs. The first is the album’s opener, “Together,” a Southern soul workout that draws water from the well of hope mankind never seems to exhaust, even in the bleakest times. The second, “Lord of the Fleas,” is a spritely Randy Newman-esque shuffle featuring slightly rewritten lyrics and a new vocal track to make its message of political P.T. Barnums even more on point for our current time.
Other gems lay scattered throughout the record — from the cooking rhythm of the rambler who narrates “Ragtime Angel,” through the reminiscence of fond friends and times found in “Killin’ Time,” and the soulful celebration of the survival of love found in the album’s closer, “Desdemona.”