Tag Archives: Americana

One Summer: America, 1927

One Summer: America, 1927One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

At some point, Bill Bryson apparently became interested in something that happened during the summer of 1927, probably in relation to baseball, so he did what any good writer would do and went to the library to begin reading newspapers from that period. He quickly realized that apart from Babe Ruth’s amazing season, there were lots of other incredible things happening, not least of which was Lindberg’s first solo transatlantic flight.

You can see Bryson in action as a reader himself, as he drops hints about his methodology throughout the book: he alludes to headlines and how many pages were devoted to specific stories at specific times. When characters (known or unknown today) appear, he delves into the secondary literature to place them in context.

And we are persuaded. There is no doubt about it, crazy and amazing things were happening in the summer of 1927, and Bryson’s verve and prose make this popcorn history at its best. It’s accessible, fun, engaging, and at times genuinely insightful. And it even does something important: it gives a new perspective of a different time in our nation’s history.

Of course, with any historical snapshot like this the problem is that stories keep wandering out of the frame. We get, for instance, exposes of Coolidge and Hoover and their respective administrations, as well as clues and forecasts leading up to the stock market crash, but of course most of that action and context happens off screen, as it were. When it comes down to it, the only things that are firmly within the summer appear to be baseball and the immediate aftermath of Lindberg’s flight.

Some of the things Bryson covers consists of primarily context (like the advent of talking pictures and its influence) without any conclusion (like what happened with Ford’s Model A, which Ford had shut down all production in that summer in order to create). But all of that is fine, because Bryon’s not writing a historical treatise. He’s writing a story. A story about a single summer with tons of information, tons of fantastic characters, and his familiar vantage of being pleasantly delighted and bemused with everything he’s discovering.

The Man With the Aura

The Man with the Aura: The Collected Short FictionThe Man with the Aura: The Collected Short Fiction by R.A. Lafferty

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Who is the weirdest writer? Obviously that’s a huge question, and the answer will be contingent on both your definition of the word and the scope of who you’re reading. There are probably more than a few unpleasantly strange or shockingly bizarre authors writing fiction right now, though mainstream publishing seems to do a pretty good job of shutting them out for popular audiences. But if you were looking for an author who managed to squeeze in for a while and who isn’t so much macabre or grotesque (though he is certainly that more than occasionally) and rather more like just wonderfully, rollickingly weird, you wouldn’t have to look farther than R. A. Lafferty.

Lafferty is a puzzle, and I’ve written about him on the blog several times before without getting into much deeper analysis. (If you want deeper analysis, check out Feast of Laughter.) I keep writing reviews about him as though I’m writing for an audience that’s never read him. That’s okay though, because that audience is still far too large, and Lafferty seems to bring out the evangelizing tendencies of his readers.

Lafferty’s work– which flourished in scifi and fantasy magazines at the weird height of the New Wave– doesn’t so much straddle all the borders of speculative fiction (horror to fantasy to weird western to science fiction) so much as it seems blissfully unaware that such borders exist. His stories are tall tales, whether set in outer space, the far future, or the living room. They create lumbering, larger-than-life characters with a language more akin to a Native American story-teller (which is why his work does so well read aloud) than prose satisfied with sitting quietly on the page.

The problem with Lafferty though is that you have to look for the guy. His collections are out of print and hard to find. His novels are hit and miss at least on a first read. What’s rescuing him from obscurity at the moment– besides the eloquence and enthusiasm of devotees far more well-spoken than me– is yet another obscurity: the small press. Centipede Press to be exact, which is in the process of releasing all his collected works. (I’ve reviewed volume 1 previously.)

So what does one find in this second volume? For one thing, don’t worry if it’s the only volume you can find, as the stories appear in these collections in no particular order or chronological progression. This volume (like the first) is a grab bag so that, as the editor explains, a reader new to Lafferty can experience him as readers in the sixties, seventies, and eighties did: a large, bright voice stumbled upon in stories scattered through magazines and collections of the decades in no apparent order.

The volume itself is a significant, lovely edition, polished enough to give Lafferty a worthy place on the shelf yet weird enough to fit the contents. There are, however, still some editorial mistakes (or teases). For example, in the section listing first publication info for each story, there’s story listed that doesn’t actually appear in this volume. (The first story slated for volume 3?)

What about the stories themselves? What does one stumble upon in this collection? Wide open vistas. And jokes. In fact, looking down the list of the table of contents for this volume, I’m struck that this might be a common theme here. Not that these stories aren’t serious or well-written, but rather that each of them (or at least most of them) contain a central hidden hook, something that you only catch looking at you and winking when the story has wrapped up. I can’t tell you the punchline for each story (and in at least one of them I simply didn’t get the joke) but I’ll highlight a few of my favorites.

“Land of the Great Horses” is a good place to start. It’s a mosaic tale, told from a variety of perspectives, including a fictional encyclopedia article, about the reappearance of the lost homeland of the Romany, shot through with Lafferty’s celebration of language. Then there’s “Ride a Tin Can,” which combines music with folk anthropology to give a tragic, grotesque, and hilarious first contact story against the background of economic exploitation in the worse sense possible. Another favorite in this collection is “Hog-belly Honey,” which illustrates Lafferty’s unique ability to combine aspects of hard science fiction with a homespun, raggedy narrative voice and give it all the feel of genuine folk medicine and showmanship. Finally, I loved the piece “Great Day in the Morning,” which pokes fun at some of the assumptions of the modernist paradise but doesn’t flinch to go all the way and take such assumptions to their ludicrous conclusions.

I saw a spectacularly disheartening graphic the other day that proposed to break the art of the story down to its component pieces, outlining the different types of general characters and plots and settings like you’d pick them off a menu and use to build your own narrative value meal. The graphic also reminded helpfully of the basic narrative arch: the character experiences conflict or a problem, this conflict goes through climax and resolution, and then the story ends with the character changed in important ways. This is all useful enough, but Lafferty is the sort of writer who reminds that to do really interesting things it’s better to just ignore helpful narrative flowcharts altogether. Or rather, Lafferty turns the narrative flowchart on his head, because it’s not his characters experiencing this arch– it’s his readers.

You start a Lafferty story and immediately realize something is off or strange. This isn’t the world you were expecting. The sense of uncertainty grows as you read it, but you’re drawn along by his voice. And then at some point you abruptly get it: the concept or the punchline or the up-side-down world snaps into focus and the reader (never mind the main character, who might well be dead, dismembered, or eaten at this point) leaves the page changed in important ways.

Yet even that approach is a model Lafferty can discard whenever he sees fit. Some of the stories are simply straightforward and lovely, like the pseudo-biographical piece, “Gray Ghost: A Reminiscence,” which is in the strain of the very best Bradbury. Another, the final in this volume, is a post-apocalyptic tale that may be Lafferty’s world building at the most compelling I’ve seen. In the space of a short story he spins out a tiny kingdom, characters, and ecological tangles that seem in some respects as contemporary as The Hunger Games and as haunting as Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind.

I continually find when I reach the end of reviewing a book by Lafferty that I haven’t really done it justice. Well, then you read some of his stuff and try to explain it. Or rather, imagine this. Imagine a man who no longer exists, maybe your great-grandfather or maybe the person you always hoped your great-grandfather was. Someone a little strange but who has been places you never have (because most of them no longer exist either) and who tells spinning, staggering stories with the voice of an older generation. Someone who has one foot in the American West with its tall tales and the other in the technology that was sprouting like mushrooms at the height of the Space Race. And this man tells stories, and no one ever told him how he was supposed to tell them, so he tells them like he wants.

There you go. Lafferty is a little bit like that imaginary man, raised to the third power, at least.

American Gods

American GodsAmerican Gods by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Neil Gaiman’s work is a good example of the law of conservation of narrative: story is neither created nor destroyed; it is simply transformed from one form to another. Gaiman’s novel American Gods could have been a hundred different things, representing the new gods of America in a hundred different ways. But instead it’s something significant, because Gaiman knows the first rule of original story-telling: know the original stories.

This is what’s wrong with a lot of writing today: it’s shallow. Much of it seems to be written in a vacuum. But the thing about writing (and especially fantasy) is that for it to be really alive, for the story to be rich, it needs to draw on deep wells. And these wells— as American Gods illustrates— go all the way back to the beginning. Gaiman weaves a new and compelling story, a story about the new gods and the old gods in America, but he does it because he understands the building-blocks of the oldest tales.

If you’re looking for a modern story-teller archetype, Neil Gaiman is it. He accumulated a nearly inexhaustible supply of capital and credibility with the classic Sandman series of graphic novels, where he showed he had the knowledge and skill to weave with a rich and textured fabric, pulling in literary figures from Orpheus to Chesterton. To be honest though, after Sandman I found most of Gaiman’s work— Neverwhere, Stardust, the movies Coraline and Mirrormask— to be a bit disappointing (though I liked M is for Magic). Like I said though, he has inexhaustible credibility, so I when I found American Gods in paperback on my sister’s tall brick shelves, I took it home.

This is the Gaiman I remember from Sandman: raw, epic, and dark in a way that shimmers toward opalescence, like the sheen on a serpent’s back. Gaiman’s world is haunting and beautiful; it’s elegant and terrifying; it draws on the deep joy of Chesterton and the riddled wisdom of Gene Wolfe (both of whose words make appearances in this book) with a more pagan flavor. But not an anti-Christian paganism; more like a pre-Christian paganism, a paganism of the deep forests where Christ is still a rumor of Rome on the horizon.

American Gods is the story of a man named Shadow (and this is where Gaiman’s narrative credibility comes in: only he could give a protagonist in a fantasy novel such a trite name and have it stick and work). Shadow has just gotten out of prison and is traveling home, when he runs into a figure who recruits him for a coming war. It turns out that our country has become a battleground between gods of the old world (Europe, Asia, and Africa, primarily) and the new gods of America (things like Media, Internet, and other intangibles as well as gods of industry, railroad, and transportation).

If it sounds a bit transcendental, it’s not. Gaiman keeps it grounded in physicality. Apart from Shadow’s annoying tendency to have significant plot points revealed through dreams (though in fairness he’s spending a lot of time in communication with Native American deities), Gaiman’s gods are very physical: they screw, smoke, swear, throw punches, and try to assassinate each other.

Like I said, a master of old stories. Look some up. This is what the gods spent their time doing.

I can’t go into the plot much at all without dropping spoilers, because even in the very first chapter there are twists and turns. The whole book is a riddle, and there are pleasing knots throughout. The narrative follows Shadow, about whom we continue to learn more, as he works with a man named Wednesday (whose identity readers familiar with mythology will work out fairly quickly) to recruit the old gods— those brought to America by immigrants— in a coming battle against the new.

If you know your mythology, you’ll recognize figures as they’re introduced, but you certainly won’t recognize everyone. Gaiman doesn’t keep his mythology confined to a specific ethnicity. There are gods and monsters from all across the map, several of whom I didn’t know. And Gaiman isn’t one to spell everything out for you, putting nice labels on each god as it is introduced.

That said, it’s the riddles that really make this book work. When gods battle, they tend to do it out of sight of mortals, which is why Shadow— a human more or less like us— makes a good lens through which to view the story. We’re forced to figure things out along with him. And the riddles envelop this story like those Russian dolls that fit inside each other. The big riddle of the entire book is revealed at the end, and it’s flawlessly done, something you don’t expect but that you see clues for throughout once you know it. And the smaller, nested riddles— such as the mystery that Shadow stumbles upon in the middle third of the book in a small Northern town— you can amuse yourself by figuring out as you go. In this, Gaiman is definitely a student of Wolfe, though unlike his master Gaiman is more merciful in that by the end of the book he’ll show you how the trick is done.

If you know Gaiman primarily through his softer stuff, be warned: this book is raw. The language is that of a Brit who seasons liberally with profanity (effectively, to be fair). And there’s plenty of sex. And not mere mortal sex either: god-sex. If you blush easily, keep this book on the shelf.

But the book is strong, and besides an excellent tale, Gaiman is saying something here about the nature of narrative and belief itself and even something about the essence of America. It’s a story by someone who loves America with the wide open eyes of an outsider. Gaiman writes about an America that actually exists, as he explains in his introduction, about real roadside attractions and about a culture (albeit one already slightly dated) we’re sure to recognize. More than that though, he talks about what’s happening beneath the surface: what happens to gods and beliefs and stories when they find themselves in this new world.

This is where his work has the most depth, and this is where you get a glimpse of Wolfe and Chesterton peering over his shoulders (or perhaps perched on his shoulders, like the ravens of Odin). In this non-Christian (but not necessarily anti-Christian) polytheistic world, Gaiman’s sympathies are clearly with the old gods with all their arrogance and faded glory, with all their personality. They have something the new, brash, neon gods of commerce and industry lack. As Gaiman has his character Shadow say: I’d prefer the sad roadside attraction to the new gleaming hotel, because there’s something more real there.

America, it turns out, is a bad place for gods. As Gaiman spells out several times, the land isn’t fertile for them. And it’s the land itself lurking in the background of the story, a shadowy figure that’s never a player in the same sense as the (ultimately revealed) figures pulling the strings of even the gods. Gods don’t flourish here like they did in the Old World, and even the new gods arise quickly and fade fast. But this isn’t a work of comparative religion, so Gaiman never really chases this idea or offers us reasons why. And because this is a story to which the monotheistic gods aren’t invited, they’re not a part of Gaiman’s narrative.

But the book isn’t an explanation. It’s a story. The best stories explain some things, but they don’t explain everything. (This is what Biblical literalists forget about the Bible.) It’s a really, really good story about gods in America. It’s also, more significantly, a story about stories: what they do, what they’re for, how they have the power to shape cultures, and what happens to them (or might happen to them) in this brave new world in which we find ourselves.

Lands and People (and an interview with Bill Mallonee!)

Lands & Peoples cover (CD & LP) bill mallonee by Kevin HighLands and Peoples
Bill Mallonee & the Big Sky Ramblers

In the Platonic cinema of the forms, there’s an epic movie called something like Americana Melancholia, which chronicles all the interior, wide-sky woe of the great American narrative from Dust Bowl to Rustbelt. It’s about the brokenness that’s been in the American dream from the very beginning. It’s a heart-breaking, gorgeous film, whether or not it exists. But it has a soundtrack that definitely does, and that’s the music of Bill Mallonee.

When I graduated from high school, an older guy I looked up to in my youth group gave me the record/EP combo that pushed Bill Mallonee to the margins of fame: Audible Sigh/Room Despair. It was a breath of dusty, whisky-tinged air into my CCM world of Jars of Clay, Caedmon’s Call, and company. Mallonee sang about something earthier, richer, and somehow deeper– certainly something more real, desperate, and beautiful than the other groups I was listening to at the time. He didn’t provide tidy answers. He didn’t wrap his lyrics in a neat bow of faith. He left them raw and bleeding. Those songs were the soundtrack of my last summer before leaving home, open roads, and the dashboard of a midnight blue ’99 Firebird.

Then he disappeared. Or I lost him. I’m not sure what happened. In college I picked up his next album, Summershine, despite the fact the cover bore an embarrassing pink flower instead of the angsty derailed locomotive of Audible Sigh. (I was, after all, an insecure freshmen.) The magic was still there, though the earthiness was mellowed with glimpses of an almost opalescent brilliance in lyrics like (still among my favorite): “Moonlight be a friend tonight / we’re all wrecked upon these dreams. / Holding on a bit too tight / I’ve got splinters from these moonbeams.” (That line has inspired short stories.)

But something happened. As I said, I’m not sure what. Part of it may have been that Mallonee’s music was simply too heart-felt. I wasn’t the sappy crooning of country, yet it was too genuine– too non-ironic– for the world of CCM or popular alternatives. Perhaps he simply needed more irony. Mallonee’s band was called, after all, “The Vigilantes of Love,” and if this was a bit tongue-in-cheek it was hard to tell. If I had to pick a literary analogue to the situation, I’d fall back on R. A. Lafferty (mentioned often on this blog), the “science fiction” writer from Tulsa whose words and worlds were simply too wide and weird to find a home in the publishing world of the 1980s.

And like the Laffertian renaissance I’ve written about here, there is perhaps a Melloneean renaissance underway as well. Over the past few years Mallonee– living and working now in the American Southwest– has been faithfully writing and producing at the edges of the industry, living on the faith and goodwill of the fans who continue to support his unique voice. I was reacquainted with his work when Noisetrade offered a free download of his EP Victory Garden, putting me in the orbit of his regular email missives with project updates and– painfully– occasional offers to sell guitars and amps to make ends meet.

The desert life is harsh, it seems. But the desert flowers as well. Beginning with last year’s Amber Waves, building to anticipated release of The Winnowing, Mallonee’s recent work culminates with Lands and Peoples, the latest product of this desert efflorescence. And it’s the same Mallonee I remember: a voice of dust and whisky. Mallonee paints pictures in his music of dying towns, dying crops, and wounded dreams with a pained beauty that makes you want to weep and enjoy the weeping. Mallonee’s voice belongs to a lost yesterday. If someone (and I’m sure someone has) collected all the ballads of American cowboys– real cowboys– and wanted a singer to record them to preserve for posterity the voice of the American West– well, Mallonee has that voice.

Yet his sound is his own and doesn’t belong to the West alone. If his voice is from yesterday, the music that envelops it is of today. Lands and Peoples is sonically rich, with a depth and texture showing an organic growth from the albums immediately previous. You hear it from the initial track, “At Least for A Little While,” which hooks immediately with quiet, desperate guitar fingering. It builds into “Hide Me in the Darkness,” a haunting piece that along with “Little While” forms an especially strong beginning into standard Mallonee fare: haunted guitar, haunted voice, haunting lyrics. The clouds Mallonee promises may break “At Least for A Little While” in the first track of course gather again, building over mesas and long roads, steeped in dying light. It’s a familiar ache, but none the less gorgeous. They clear completely though in “Sangre de Cristo,” a piece of lovely blue sky that sits like a bright beacon in the album’s heart. Then they gather again, toward a fitful sunset in “It All Turns to Dust,” with Mallonee leaving us only that whispered promise at the record’s conclusion.

If you’re a fan of rich, textured music with a strong narrative thread and an abiding sense of locality, check out this album. (You can find links and info on all of Mallonee’s work here.) There’s a sound here that deserves being more widely heard.

When I approached Bill about reviewing his latest album, he suggested a Q&A and was good enough to offer detailed responses to my questions. His responses, which I’ve posted below, give deeper insights into what’s going on beneath the surface of these songs as well as a glimpse into the mind and heart of the guy Paste Magazine has called one of America’s greatest living songwriters. (I agree with Paste, incidentally.)

Lands%20&%20Peoples%20%28new%20inside%20covermiddle%20panelcolor%29Q: I don’t know much about the technical details of recording, but I feel a bit like I stepped over the edge of a sonic shelf in Lands and Peoples, which struck me as being deeper musical waters than some of your previous albums. It seemed audibly more three-dimensional. Can you help me understand what I’m hearing?

BM: I think your questions has two parts. First, the “audibly more three-dimensional” part. I have a few good mics, but after that I just use my ears. But, it might have to do with the materials the studio is made from. Muriah and I live in a small community in the high deserts of New Mexico. In every area you go with the materials that are there. In New Mexico, for centuries now of course, houses have been built out of dried clay and mud. We were fortunate, when we moved here four years ago, to be able to rent just such a dwelling. Yeah, it really is a hacienda. So, I think what you might be hearing is the the fact that the studio is housed in an almost two hundred year adobe casita. The walls are two feet thick all around of prepared dried mud. They are non-parallel (always a plus in studio recording) and the the exposed beams in the ceiling create a kind of baffling. It’s an easy room to get sounds in and to mix tracks in. So the fellas who constructed it unknowingly built a great room to record music in. Also, the room is just beautiful. Quaint and full of all that is inspiring about southwest architecture. Step outside and you’ll be looking straight into the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo chain of the Rockie Mountains. (Poor us!)  Yes, hats off to the beauty of these wonderful, natural elements. I feel very blessed.

Part two of you question (the deeper musical waters part): I think my love affair with just how guitars can and should interplay with other guitars as part of the song structure is something I’ve been having fun exploring for the last five years. Many of the recent albums (and the EPs I’ve release under the moniker WPA) explore that guitar-to-guitar relationship. It’s about the right parts supporting one another. I think the last few records (The Power & The Glory, Amber Waves, Dolorosa, and last year’s Winnowing) have kind of a subtle, unobtrusive beauty. The trick was to make them sound sparse, but in reality there are many guitar tracks on almost all of these songs, weaving in and out of the musical tapestry. The trick, I think I’m learning, is that no one part necessarily has to carry the weight of the whole.

Q: I also hear continuity with what came before, specifically some of the songs in Audible Sigh (as well as lyrical nods to that album). You haven’t radically transformed your sound, but it’s certainly developed. Yet personally and geographically (and theologically?) you’re hundreds of miles away from where you were then. How does this come out in your music?

BM: I don’t know, really. I think it’s all the natural process of life. Yes, the songs are grimmer, darker now, to be sure. I don’t think that means they’re necessarily drawn from a different well. I do know more about how the country works and how the industry works for some and not others than I did when I first started out. Me? I just wanted to make songs that were authentic and honest. That’s all.

First the back story. Vigilantes of Love. We’d been critics darlings for many years running. We put out great records. Even music critics kept asking after each album: “Why are they not breaking bigger?” You have to remember that we started in a day when bands could break with a few resources marshaled to places like MTV and late night talk shows. In reality, we were broke, confused, increasingly discouraged. My band mates were just incredibly heroic, wonderful people all through this. We enjoyed playing together and hanging out together.

But, the reality is that Audible Sigh, produced by Buddy Miller, and the records in front and back of that release (Roof of The Sky and ‘Cross the Big Pond) were in many ways the beginning of the end. I can’t tell you how many folks saw that band “live” and said things to us like, “Why aren’t you guys playing beside Son Volt, Wilco, the Jayhawks?” All of those bands were big, big names in the early Americana ink that was high profile in the late 90s’ and early 2000’s. We worked hard. I use to joke that we could play on any Fischer-Price PA system any night of the week (and we often did!) and make magic. It was such a beautiful, kickin’ band. And we toured 180-200 shows a year in small college club world to generate a following. Vigilantes of Love became a “best kept secret.”

Could we have broken bigger? I think so, yes. Why we didn’t break, I think again, is simply because we were never very well connected. The folks we trusted, be they managers, or labels, or booking agents, all steered us into dead-ends. I have no “killer instinct.” I just wanted to write, perform, and make records. I think we waited as long as we could until it was time to say: “Ok, this is not gonna happen.”

But one has to grieve when a dream dies. And since I wrote all the songs and had poured so man emotions in it (we’d done something like fifteen albums in ten years) I was devastated. I went through this period where I felt personally let down and cast aside by so many managers and labels. Even our home town was detached. After comparing notes with many other singer-songwriter types, I heard similar stories. But the songs kept coming. Lots of them. I think I released four solo albums in 2001. Ultimately, I decided that I didn’t need an industry’s permission to be who I was.

That’s the backstory.

How does that dark experience play out in the last years and records? Well, Muriah and I moving to the high desert to live a more uncluttered life was one of the responses. One has to excavate from the previous experiences and reflect on the journey. I think there’s a certain haunted quality began to emerge in the songs, even a Southwest quality. I was (mistakenly, I think) lumped in with that whole weird “Christin artist” sub-culture thing for a spell. What I do, at the risk of sounding arrogant, is bigger than that. What I do is not commercial in the way such folks see it. I hope it’s more real than that.

Thematically, I tell folks that you can only write well what you know well. I’m a confessional type writer. (Maybe that comes from my rearing as a Catholic, where everything in one’s life is something of an inventory; something under chronic scrutiny by oneself and the Lord.) I believe the Faith, to be sure. It informs how I see the world and live in it. But, you have to learn how to live with the incongruities in yourself and even in your faith. Some days the world makes sense, other days not so much. So, that’s an undercurrent theme in the new work, to be sure. It comes out as a struggle, a wrestling. Too often darkness seems to be the loudest voice in my life. I do I feel I have been the undeserving recipient of Grace. I am loved. We all are. I see this life as precious, hallowed and a gift. But, those vital truths are also more eroded than ever in the onslaught of what we call modernity.

How does that related to the songs? Well, i have no agendas, no polemic to dispense when I write and sing. Whether I’m giving a new slant on a Dust Bowl ballad tale and investing it with something of my own journey or whether I’m just writing a song that has more of a first person haunted quality (“The Ghost That I run With” comes to mind), I feel my job is to make honest, authentic work. I tell folks: “I love my job. It’s good work, if you can get it!”

Q: I live and breath prose (though sometimes I dream in verse), so it’s hard for me to imagine what the process of writing a song might look like. What does a song sound like for you as it begins to coalesce? Does the sound come first or the words? Do you ever have one without the other?

I think you have to let a song tell you where it wants to go. No over-thinking it. I know that sound mysterious. It is. Songs have a way of “getting outta hand.” And that’s a good thing, I believe. Don’t be afraid of the where they wanna go. I think it’s part of being open to the Spirit, really.

Usually, I have to have a guitar in my hand when I write. I’ll keep a journal of lyrics going on the road when Muriah and I are touring and consult it for ideas later. But mostly a whole song, at least the heart and focus, comes in one sitting. (After that it’s adding hook lines, overlays that keep it living to the ears.) Sometimes a whole song will show up based solely on the cadence or syncopation of a phrase or a couple lines of lyrics. Melodies make the song memorable and that’s what I hope happens naturally.

But, to recap: I do very much think if you force something or over-think it, it’s probably not gonna be memorable.

Q: You sing on the margins, and you also sing about the margins: the margins of failure and defeat, despair, and hope. Maybe the margins of faith as well? Would you say this is part of what inspires your work: transforming the experience of these margins into beauty?

Absolutely. The trick is to make the margins clearer, more visible. We’re all so numbed and mesmerized by daily life. Yet, I think “Something,” or “Some One,” keeps pushing through, asking for our attention. Those can be what writer Frederick Buechner calls those “lump-in-the-throat” moments that take us by surprise. We’re here for such a short time. And yet we’re haunted, captivated, driven by this sense of transcendence, a hunch that Love really does means something; that no life is anything less than precious; that life has this hallowed quality and that each of us are beautiful mysteries; that there is something beyond the grave.

Sure, some think that ground of being is beyond words. And, being small and finite, perhaps it is. But, to me that’s what all great art attempts to do: To give a nomenclature to the Love that I believe is the ground of everything.