Posted in On Air

Autumn Ragland Sings About The Faces We Wear on Guardian

In her song “I Think I Love You Too Much,” Autumn Ragland, the lead singer of a band that bears her last name, mentions putting on an ‘everything’s all right’ face to please a person she dedicates an unhealthy amount of energy to pleasing. To hear her tell it, it’s not a face she wears well.

“People tell me all the time I can’t keep a straight face if I’m mad. It’s probably really bad.”

Unfortunately, it is one she has to wear all the time in the music industry.

“I’m having to put that face on and smile and be perfect,” Ragland said. “It’s miserable actually. You don’t see that on the guy’s side. They don’t have to put that much effort in. I would see guys at the same event in jeans and sneakers and having a sour look on their face and people are still flocking to them.”

That’s a topic she covers exceptionally well on “Throwing My Life Away.” It’s the second time Ragland has released the song, but this time it comes with a Sunny Sweeney harmony and improved production value. Autumn Ragland rightfully complains about the double standard women face, especially in light of the songs she tends to release.

It would be more than a little jarring to see Autumn sparkling and smiling wide as she sings about topics like her mental health diagnosis on a song like “Guns In The House,” a particularly effective and sparse tune clocking in at less than two minutes. It’s heartbreaking to hear her realization that she’ll be dependent on medication and susceptible to dangerous thoughts for the rest of her life, and it’s not a moment that would make sense recounted with a smile.

“I don’t like that the way I physically present myself is supposed to say more about my music than my music does and that seems to be the case,” Ragland explained. “It makes no sense that I’m required to be really good and deep and write these songs and be true to myself but I also have to do the complete opposite of that and be fake.”

The song was one she captured right after a visit with a doctor.

“They were telling my husband to keep an eye on me and make sure there’s no weapons in the house.” Ragland said. “I’m not going to do anything like that, but I’ve had moments where it felt like that. If I had access to weapons it would’ve been the end for me.”

Elsewhere on the album, the title track is particularly worth listening to. It’s a genuinely sweet love song with a vocal performance to match. “I’m Not Mad, I Just Miss You” isn’t quite as happy, but the details feel real and further expand on the difficulties of being on the road in a way that goes beyond the cliches.

Above is the full episode as aired on WUSB’s Country Pocket, including both my interview with Autumn Ragland and the songs we discussed, starting with “I Think I Love You Too Much,” which I relate to by thinking about how much I let my cat get away with. I’ll let you decide how sad that is. You can hear the show live every Monday at 11am on WUSB 90.1 FM or check the blog to watch it as a YouTube playlist. Visit http://www.WUSB.fm and https://thebandragland.com for more.

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American and Family Histories Drive Roger Street Friedman’s Love Hope Trust

In a time of ever-worsening division, Long Island musician Roger Street Friedman is arguing that love, hope, and trust are feelings that should flow in more than just our closest relationships. They may be necessary for the survival of our society.

“Like anyone else I can get sucked into the political arguments on Facebook, but I just came to realize it wasn’t serving me or anyone else,” Friedman said. “Really, the way to approach life is to understand that we’re more alike that we are different. We all want the same things, which is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The voices we are hearing are the most extreme voices. It’s not how most people feel.”

In our discussion, Friedman and I were pretty much in agreement that we have to hope for the best and that most people were deserving of love. But we disagreed on just how realistic it is to trust folks on the other side of the aisle in a time of attempts to overturn elections and undermine democracy. I was against the idea. While Friedman noted that his song was “aspirational, he added that misinformation and biases have a lot to do with how people think and that they alone aren’t to blame.

“Understanding what these people are exposed to and what they’re going through makes me hopeful that if I were across the table drinking a beer with somebody that we could have a reasonable and rational discussion,” Friedman said. 

“The Ghosts of Sugarland” is one of the more impressive pieces of activist songwriting from 2022. It specifically tells the story of the prison slave labor Southern states and business such as Imperial Sugar exploited in the years following emancipation. Clocking in at nearly 7 minutes, the song tells the whole story from how a mass grave found at a former prison revealed the horrors that befell the newly freed Black population and the legal maneuverings that allowed it all to happen.

“I was so angry that I never learned about it in school,”  Friedman said. “And then to think about what’s going on now where they’re trying to not teach Black history in school because they don’t want people to feel bad, it just felt like the time was right to tell this story. It was not that long ago. It wasn’t outlawed in Texas until 1912.” 

While the song rightly condemns the 19th and 20th century Whites involved in the scheme, it more gently prods the modern listener to reconsider the true cost of their luxury goods and the complacency it may inspire. Given the product being produced at the plantation, the line about ‘sugarcoating’ what’s taught in schools feels particularly bitter.

Elsewhere on the album, “Mother and Son,” “Thankful For This Day,” and “Multiply by Two” are particularly worth listening to. Friedman really shines when he’s focused on love, positivity, and relationships absolutely packed with the love, hope, and trust he hopes society at large can adopt. “Mother and Son” is especially remarkable in the way it manages to fold in stories from so many family members to create a portrait of a woman I probably would’ve liked a lot.

Above is the full episode as aired on WUSB’s Country Pocket, including both my interview with Roger Street Friedman and the songs we discussed, starting with the title track, which challenged my more distrusting nature. You can hear the show live every Monday at 11am on WUSB 90.1 FM or check the blog to watch it as a YouTube playlist. Visit http://www.WUSB.fm and https://www.rogerstreetfriedman.com for more.

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Bo Armstrong’s Multilayered Optimism About Long Term Relationships on “If your tired heart is aching…”

Long term relationships form the bedrock of our society and for most people it will be the state in which they spend the majority of our lives. Songwriters usually focus on the beginning and end of relationships, the red hot infatuation and the heartbreak and anger. Bo Armstrong’s “If your tired heart is aching…” spends most of its runtime aiming somewhere in the middle, exploring the highs and lows of love that (hopefully) lasts. 

While many one-subject albums tell a more coherent story, Armstrong chooses here to come at the same subject from a few sharply different angles. One song uses autobiographical details to believably declare “somehow I love you more now than I did then,” while an older character in another song describes marriage as “forty years of getting by/and life and death and restless nights/and every now and then you come up winning.” Two songs are clear about a relationship ending while others hint that one is on the rocks. I asked Armstrong why he chose to view the subject through such a varied lens.

“I think that was the most honest way for me to do it, Armstrong said. “It would be totally disingenuous to try to present everything as perfect even though I think I have a wonderful relationship with my wife and with my family, but I think it’s easier for folks to relate to some of the nitty gritty. There would be a whole lot of eye rolling going on if there were 10 tracks like “More Than I Did Then.”

Much as listening is a key part of communication in a long term relationship, sharing the perspective of a woman, particularly a strong, reasonable, and realistic one is vital to Armstrong’s credibility on his chosen topic. Rather than trying to imagine himself in a woman’s place, Armstrong covers Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her.” Naturally, he’s a huge fan of the track.

“It may not take anything in particular to end a relationship so much as love just runs out, and I think that’s one of the special things about that song,” Armstrong explained. “There’s so many heartbreak songs about these massive turning points in a relationship that cause something to end, but I think “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” is such a beautiful song because you don’t have that moment. It’s just a bunch of little things over time where two people fall out of love.”

Rarely does inserting a cover actually improve my opinion of a singer/songwriter’s judgment and skill. In this case it does. It also pairs fantastically with “Stranger In My Bed,” an original that starts off deflecting responsibility for failing to maintain a relationship and ends by shifting to the first person and vowing to correct those mistakes. It’s a psychologically complex song that hints at exhaustion, anxiety, and anger threatening the relationship but never even hints that the partner any hand in those emotions developing. “Collecting Dust” further explores the themes of repair, uncertainty, and hope to close the album’s story. Such inconclusiveness may be frustrating to some listeners, but I suspect it will hit just right for those dealing with struggles in their own long term relationships. As for Armstrong, his own experiences mirror some on the album.

“I’ve been in a relationship with my wife now for 15 years and I was starting to realize that there are moments when you’re not doing all the little things that you used to,” Armstrong admitted. “That’s not necessarily this awful thing, life is taxing, it doesn’t mean you love that person any less. You just have to find new ways of showing it over time.”

Despite some of the challenges he presents on the album, Armstrong claims he’s optimistic about long term relationships.

“That’s all rooted in the decision to engage in the relationship to begin with,” Armstrong said. “The second I met the girl who was going to become my wife I was 100% confident that she was who I was supposed to marry and who I was supposed to live the rest of my life with. So whenever there are moments that particularly difficult or challenging, it’s just reminding yourself of why you’re there in the first place.” 

Two songs don’t quite fit with the rest of the album. “Why, Dallas?” is a well-written break up song but fails to fit into the narrative arc established between the two musical interludes. “Which Way’s Home” is the only song to occur outside those interludes and is more clearly meant to be taken in separately. Armstrong uses it to trace his interesting life that started in Texas, moved to boarding school in the Northeast to play hockey, and as of now ended up in Nashville making music. While he admires the independent spirit of the Texas music scene, he sees good in Nashville as well, even if he concedes there’s no place for the kinds of songs he writes on a mainstream radio station. 

“People in Nashville are after the song as much as they are about the glitz and glam that surround it,” he said. “I actually think in the last few years there’s been a resurgence in the emphasis on songwriting even on commercial radio. It’s getting there.” 

Speaking commercial radio, I’ll include Bo singing Billie Eilish and Dua Lipa in the playlist below.

Above is the full episode as aired on WUSB’s Country Pocket, including both my interview with Bo Armstrong and the songs we discussed, starting with “He Think’s He’ll Keep Her,” a rare cover song I’m spotlighting in one of my discussions. You can hear the show live every Monday at 11am on WUSB 90.1 FM or check the blog to watch it as a YouTube playlist. Visit http://www.WUSB.fm and https://www.boarmstrongmusic.com for more.

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Tiffany Williams Sings About Self Agency, Love, and What it’s Really Like to be a Coal Miner’s Daughter

The late great Loretta Lynn proudly declared herself a coal miner’s daughter, expressing pride over her parents’ hard work and nostalgia for their simple but sufficient upbringing. Tiffany Williams, a coal miner’s daughter herself, feels that pride, but used her song about the topic to express something a little different.

“You’re always worried about them and you always wish they didn’t have to do it,” Williams said. “It’s just that constant fear. But there’s also a pride. You’re proud that they’re brave enough and capable enough and hard working to go and do that.” 

Her title track, “All Those Days of Drinking Dust,” is complex. There’s gratitude for the hard work generations of men in her family performed, but also a sense of survivor’s guilt that she went on to live a more comfortable life. Instead of Lynn’s sweet memories, Williams sings about her fear during a cave in and her pondering if God has jurisdiction underground. She also mentions having to watch her father suffer through health issues.

“He has black lung, so he struggles with his breathing sometimes,” Williams explained. “He coughs a lot. One time he hit the roof with his head, but my dad is the kind who if he hurt himself he’d just put black electrical tape over it and be done.”

The sacrifices made by the Williams men on the first track and the expectations of a woman named “Carletta” on the second track create a great tension between sacrifice and self agency that Williams returns to repeatedly. “Harder Heart,” “Know Your Worth” and “No Bottom” all express regret over being too forgiving, too generous, too eager to please. “Know Your Worth” is motivational and tries to inspire others to stand up for themselves, but “No Bottom” opens with with the sort of line that summarizes Williams’ struggles in a defiant and humorous way: “If I had to do it different/I’d have pissed more people off.”

“I sometimes looked back on my younger self and thought I wasn’t empowered and that I was meek or soft spoken, which I was to some degree,” Williams said. “But I always went after what I wanted and I always followed through on the dreams and desires I’ve had.”

Those desires have led Williams through an interesting life including studying in Germany, working at a school for the deaf and the Tennessee State Legislature, and going to graduate school to study Appalachian language. And that doesn’t even touch on her launching a musical career in Nashville at age 31. Despite having some of the better vocals I’ve heard on an album this year, Williams originally wanted to just be a songwriter.

“If you don’t do something you don’t know if you can do it or not,” Williams, who sang in church and a high school choir, said. “That’s why it’s good to try everything.”

Williams explained that she wrote the songs on this album individually and not as a package. Still, it can be hard to reconcile her stories of wanting more self agency with the deep devotion and longing “The Sea” and “Wanted It To Be” present. “The Sea” in particular is haunting and powerful, but in metaphorically offering up her life for love, Williams seems to go back on her desire to know her worth and have a harder heart. While Williams chose to end her album on the careful love song “The Waiting,” it’s a more patient love that really combines the themes of this album correctly for me. 

“When I Come Back Around,” a duet with Silas House, features two people working on their own dreams. They leave open the possibility of a relationship if the timing works out. They pretty clearly hope for it. But it’s not their first priority right now. Instead of sacrificing dreams for a mundane life, this song is about sacrificing that mundane life for the dream. Making friendships and a relationship work through a busy life has been all about choosing the right people, Williams explains.

“It’s good when you trust a relationship and know you can go back to that relationship and it’s still there; it’s not damaged because you weren’t tending to it,” she said. “I met my current partner on tour. I went to an open mic and he was hosting. But because he does music too, he understands I’m going to be depleted. I think the thing is to choose good people to have in your life and they will understand you can’t always be there.”

Above is the full episode as aired on WUSB’s Country Pocket, including both my interview with Tiffany Williams and the songs we discussed, starting with the title track, which presents a much more complex picture than a similar Loretta Lynn song. You can hear the show live every Monday at 11am on WUSB 90.1 FM or check the blog to watch it as a YouTube playlist. Visit http://www.WUSB.fm and https://tiffanymwilliams.com for more.

Photo by Danielle Shields, courtesy of Tiffany Williams.

Posted in On Air

Kenny Foster and the Wisdom Found ‘Somewhere In Middle America’

When Kenny Foster left his Missouri home for Nashville, he quickly realized that he wasn’t from the South. But he did come to crave what he calls ‘Southern’ or ‘Hillbilly’ wisdom. 

“It’s this idea that things can be learned by watching others, listening to others, reading, telling stories.” Foster said. “We are all standing on top of everything that’s been done before us. At our best, that’s what we’re doing here.”

Between Nashville and Missouri, Foster collected plenty of it. And he gladly dispenses it throughout his album ‘Somewhere In Middle America.’ It’s what makes this album different than so many other Americana or country albums set in a small town. There’s an expected celebration of the lifestyle to be sure, but it goes much deeper. It’s almost as if Foster is sharing a memoir at the same time as crafting a guide to truly find enjoyment in middle American life.

On ‘Good For Growing Up,’ Foster imagines a new family moving into his childhood home. He does his best to teach the new young resident all the secrets of living there from the early childhood experience of fearing the pipes in the closet to the teenage years of sneaking out. On ‘Said to Somebody,’ the advice is for an older audience and about the things we need to say before it’s too late. Foster, who studied philosophy in college, is at his strongest when he’s sharing such folk wisdom.

When I spoke with Foster, he was at his childhood home on an extended Thanksgiving visit. He spoke glowingly of his parents and his childhood, even if he grew up with limited resources. ‘Poor Kids’ spins that into a positive, talking about the richness his childhood held in terms of imaginative adventures.

“It was more magical because you didn’t know what you were up against,” Foster said. “The joy existed between your ears.”

‘Copy, Paste, Repeat’ gets into the difficulties of growing into adulthood in the confines of a small town, especially for anyone who happened to be a little different. 

“Sometimes people stay where they are just because they feel like they should, and I think that had a little bit of heartbreak for me,” Foster said. 

His own decision to head off into the world was made easier by the support he received at home. 

“I’m grateful for the roots my family provided, but also my father always said he wanted to provide wings as well so his kids could go off knowing who they were and they had a place where they belonged,” he said. “Leaving, as difficult as it was, held excitement. It’s a pretty big undertaking and it can’t be understated just because it’s become so normal in modern life. It hasn’t been long that we as a society have been doing that.”

‘Farmer’ is a song that pulls the wisdom and the branching out together and winds up being the strongest on the album. It talks about how middle American virtues like patience and hard work are worthy for someone to pursue even away from the farmland where they learned them. Foster confirmed that he wanted to pass down the wisdom he acquired growing up to his newborn, even if he leads a different life than his parents did. In fact, he hopes the apple once again falls a little farther away from the tree.

“I really hope he doesn’t go into music or philosophy,” Foster said smiling. “Maybe we can push him to some things that are more practical. But I’m not going to hamper anything he wants to do.”

Love, support, folk wisdom, and lots of good music. Sounds like a childhood full of lots of joy between the ears to me.

Above is the full episode as aired on WUSB’s Country Pocket, including both my interview with Kenny Foster and the songs we discussed, starting with Poor Kids, which brought back those memories of early childhood when my imagination was a force for whimsy instead of worry. You can hear the show live every Monday at 11am on WUSB 90.1 FM or check the blog to watch it as a YouTube playlist. Visit http://www.WUSB.fm and https://kennyfostermusic.comfor more

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UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Gaby Moreno Delivers Hope in Surreal Times on Alegoría

Gaby Moreno sings only three and a half songs in English on her album Alegoría, but I’ve always concerned myself with quality over quantity. What I can understand is brilliant, with a songs capturing the bizarre daydream that the pandemic became, a yearning, apologetic love song, and an intelligent ode to conflict resolution.

Til Waking Light, the song performed half in both English and Spanish, discusses the importance of togetherness during times of uncertainty. As things get worse in the world outside, dreams and love serve as a beautiful place to hide. It’s a standout for its operatic intensity and the incredibly long note Moreno holds out at the end.

“I was trying to hold it as long as I could to get the message across,” Moreno said after I asked her if she knew how long she was able to sing on one breath. “It’s a note that I’m holding because I’m in pain, because I’m just devastated. I not thinking in terms of setting any records, it’s just what I felt in the moment”

On Lost On A Cloud, another track that draws hope out of a dark situation, Moreno directly addresses the pandemic. She employs Chris Thile for mandolin and harmony and uses high, dreamy sounds to capture the feeling of suddenly having nothing but free time. Instead of acknowledging the dread going on outside, Moreno urges her quarantine partner to recapture the freedom of youth and grants permission for them to enjoy themselves while they can’t go anywhere else.

“It’s definitely very surreal, especially when you know the whole world is at a standstill with you,” Moreno reminisced. “It was weird but I think it was also good for someone like me who had been in constant movement and always going on some tour. It felt nice to just be home and try out some new things that I hadn’t before. I think it kept me grounded and was some form of meditation to be in the kitchen cooking.”

Moreno found herself struggling to stay hopeful but found strength in trying to live one day at a time.

“If you tried thinking about the future, I think that made a lot of people insane,” she said. Moreno didn’t have much luck writing new songs, but she worked on producing and writing a score for a film. She also said her constant daydreaming was helpful.

The first track on the album, Nobody’s Wrong, is a plea for compromise and sanity when divisions arise, but Moreno says it strictly applies to some situations, mainly in personal relationships. The song, after all, stresses that ‘sometimes’ nobody’s wrong. 

“It’s not to say that nobody’s wrong always,” Moreno clarified. “There are certain circumstances where both points of view are valid and you need to let it go. I’m definitely not talking about politics. There is definitely a lot of wrong there. But for other things, life is too short for fussing and fighting.”

It’s a key distinction that elevates the song from a typical modern era effort to bridge intractable gaps about whose existence is valid into a measured salve for the little things that seem big. Moreno’s attitude can best be explained by her living in another period of instability in her home country.

“Growing up in a country like Guatemala where there’s so much conflict, politically speaking, it’s something you just have to learn to live with,” she explained. “I basically grew up not being able to go out into the streets or use public transportation. This is something that really affects me- affected me. When I got here to LA, whenever there’s conflict, I just go into my little cocoon.”

Moreno has turned her childhood in Guatemala into something incredibly positive. She became a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, literally the first for her country, in February 2020. She attended a ceremony there and visited some rural villages.

“I was really eager to do more things with them and get to work, and then lockdown happened,” Moreno said. But she still found an interesting way to help. “I recorded a song to talk about the importance of staying home and they distributed that video to really remote parts of Guatemala where they don’t even have internet.”

She also went on to record an education children’s album in Spanish to distribute to Guatemalans and to benefit their country. I’ve included a track that features Moreno’s niece on lead vocals in the video section below.

“Anything that I can do to give back to my country, I’m gonna go for it,” Moreno said. “I feel super honored that I was given this title of Goodwill Ambassador, but for me even more important is the actual work. Through me, through my platform, they can reach more people.”

It’s albums like this that make me wish I was better at learning languages. I’ve always been better at searching for the deeper meaning behind words in my native English than memorizing the literal meaning of words I can’t grasp the connotations of. Based on the English lyrics and Moreno’s translation of the end of Til Waking Light, it’s clear I’m missing out on a lot of that deep meaning I seek. Based on the melody and emotion behind the vocals, I’d have to recommend Soñar Otra Vez out of the songs in Spanish. I’m sure that since Moreno wrote it, there has to be something powerful there.

Above is the full episode as aired on WUSB’s Country Pocket, including both my interview with Moreno and the songs we discussed, starting with Lost On A Cloud, which really does sound like I’d imagine a cloud should. You can hear the show live every Monday at 11am on WUSB 90.1 FM or check the blog to watch it as a YouTube playlist. Visit http://www.WUSB.fm and https://www.gaby-moreno.com for more.

Posted in On Air

Cosmic Country Rocker Garrett T. Capps Believes that People Are Beautiful

Garrett T Capps, honky tonk owner and cosmic country rocker, believes things are getting better. It’s not because of the things he sees on the news or social media, where he sees fear, division, and lies running rampant. Instead, he turns inward and, much as he suggests on his first track, uses hope as a religion.

“I don’t subscribe to organized religion, so hope seems like a good one,” Capps explained.

People Are Beautiful is an album of peaceful, soaring rock and deep gratitude. It’s a look inside the mind of a man who considers it normal to see the faces of dead people from his childhood and believes that even feeling pain is something worth being thankful for.

“Being thankful for being alive is something I try to practice all the time,” said Capps

A big part of that life worth savoring is great music. As the owner of The Lonesome Rose, Capps is constantly booking great acts, including a few I’ve been lucky enough to have on my radio show.

“I’ve always been pretty passionate about booking bands, going to concerts, and knowing about the history of the live music world,” Capps said. 

He was able to find partners who wanted to open a honky tonk and became the creative force behind the operation. 

“We have a little tiny disco ball that’s always on no matter what,” Capps said of the vibe. “It’s somewhere between a total dive, a rock bar, and a classic Texas honky tonk.” 

The Lonesome Rose just celebrated its fourth year of operation with a show including artists like Dale Watson.

Capps’ lyrics are occasionally profound and unique, such as on the standout Happen Anytime where he’s hit with waves of truth and guilt. Other times, they’re more repetitive. But even on Time Will Tell, a song with exactly those three lyrics, there’s a statement being made. The cosmic country soundscape is gorgeous and there’s time to breathe and contemplate the statement. Capps is smart to have moments of relative quiet on the album. His guitar solos are rarely intense but instead contemplative and push the album forward gently, perfect for an album so focused on positivity, patience, and spirituality. A Better Place and People Are Beautiful do let him rock out a little more though.

Capps is at his most impressive on tracks People Are Beautiful because instead of providing examples of altruism and love, he’s showcasing pain and shitty behavior. His optimism and love for humanity are hard won and believable precisely because he acknowledges just how hard things can be sometimes. Instead of turning a blind eye to the pain, Capps is just grateful for it. When I asked him if all people are beautiful, he answered yes.

“It is beautiful to be a human being,” Capps said. “I think it’s the high road to take to realize that we are human beings trying to do our thing. Some people have a better moral compass than others, and some people are in better places than others, but personally I think everyone is beautiful, even the ugliest person in the world.”

Capps may be completely wrong to trust the species he considers beautiful. I’m more deeply suspicious of them as a whole, though there have certainly been moments where most of them have come together to do the right thing. There are still Ukrainian flags flying in my local shopping district. When those went up I was certainly feeling warm and fuzzy about my conservative neighbors for a while. I hope Capps is more right than my anxiety tells me to be. Time will tell.

Above is the full episode as aired on WUSB’s Country Pocket, including both my interview with Garrett and the songs we discussed, starting with Gettin’ Better, which begins the album. You can hear the show live every Monday at 11am on WUSB 90.1 FM or check the blog to watch it as a YouTube playlist. Visit http://www.WUSB.fm and https://garretttcapps.com for more. I’d especially advise you to click on Garrett’s website. It’s done up like it’s still the 1990s and displays his profoundly weird sensibilities.

Posted in Uncategorized

Violet Bell Deconstructs Myth and Autonomy for the Modern Listener

The Scottish myth of the selkie tells of a people of the sea who dress in seal skins. In one version of that story, a selkie woman is bound by magical forces to go home with a lonely fisherman when he steals her skin, trapping her in human form. On the album Shapeshifter, folk duo Violet Bell decided to examine the myth from a modern perspective. Their endeavor was well timed.

“It just happened to align with a lot of things that are going on in the world,” lead singer Lizzy Ross said. “The day we released (lead single) Fisherman’s Daughter was the day Roe vs. Wade was called back. This whole story is about bodily autonomy and it’s about getting to feel like you can be who you are in your body. It’s the idea of being empowered and having personal agency. And right now, those things are literally about to be on the ballot.”

The selkie and her unfamiliarity with the ways of controlling men make her an excellent stand in for young women in a modern context. Her path to escape or recourse is just as complicated and laden with danger as a human woman’s might be if she were involved with an abusive man. The drastic consequences for her moment of naked carelessness are just as painful and arbitrary as the consequences the Supreme Court majority would have a human woman face for doing the same, regardless of the circumstances. The fisherman, too, is a great representation of the type of man who sees his loneliness as a valid reason to take control of a woman or the type of voter who takes their fear and transforms it into an assault on the rights of those seeking to live by a different set of values. 

“I think this story has been medicine for people who have felt captured in one way or another by a cultural construct,” Ross said.

When the two central characters argue on “I Am A Wolf,” the selkie’s fierce desire for freedom and a return home are on full display. The fisherman comes across as a monster in the song as the selkie sings about the way his gaze affects her and how the kidnapping has made her want to resort to violence.

That’s part of why I found myself struck by how much Ross and Ruiz-Lopez extend their sympathy to the fisherman. His loneliness also merits their concern, even after he’s gone and committed a kidnapping. 

“He’s not just a villain,” Ross said. “To me he’s an expression of this force of fear that makes people feel like they have to steal in order to get what they need. That they have to be in control to be safe. That they could be unlovable. You realize that he’s coming from a place of an impoverished and fear-based existence.”

Personally, I can’t get past his actions. There’s a proper way to go about dealing with loneliness, and then there’s kidnapping. “Mortal Like Me” shows that he’s haunted by his actions, but it seems insufficient. She’s still a captive, her skin is still tied to a rock at the bottom of the sea, and now there’s a daughter involved. That certainly implies sexual assault. 

In a similar way, I struggle to get past the actions of the forces the fisherman stands in for. I could feel for their fear if they were not using it as a weapon against more vulnerable populations. Omar Ruiz-Lopez, the other half of Violet Bell, gave a historical example that was quite relevant to his experience.

“I think of my indigenous ancestors in Latin America who had voices, had a language, and now Spanish is the predominant language, the language of the oppressor,” he said. “What stories have we lost? What knowledge have we lost through control of the other? I think we’re not getting the whole story of humanity and it’s painful to feel and witness”

“We don’t even know what we’ve lost,” Ross added. “The consequences are often quiet. The culture at large may not acknowledge those harms, but we do experience the deeper consequence of that loss.”

“It perpetuates fear and trauma,” Ruiz-Lopez said. “It’s hard to heal when you’re divided.”

Ultimately, the selkie offers to take the fisherman back to the sea with her. While I interpreted it as revenge or drowning, Ross said that mixed in with that threat is a genuine invitation to her world.

“The selkie is saying ‘let me invite you out of this paradigm that is so terrible for you.” Ross explained. ‘Let me invite you into this much richer and deeper world where you may not have as much control  and you may not have the safety and clarity of your containers and categories, but you’re going to be so enriched and fed.”

There may be able to be a happy ending for the selkie and fisherman, at least insofar as the fisherman represents a fearful part of the self and not an actual kidnapper.

“What would it look like if the fisherman was able to find that love inside himself instead of capturing a selkie?” Ross wondered.

Above is the full episode as aired on WUSB’s Country Pocket, including both my interview with Lizzy and Omar and the songs we discussed, starting with Fish to Catch, which introduces the fisherman character. It’s also worth noting that their music is absolutely gorgeous. You can hear the show live every Monday at 11am on WUSB 90.1 FM or check the blog to watch it as a YouTube playlist. Visit http://www.WUSB.fm and https://violetbell.net/truehome for more.

Posted in Uncategorized

Flamy Grant Struts the Line Between Christianity and Drag on Brilliant Americana Album

It’s hard to explain just how spectacular and original the album Bible Belt Baby is, or just how well Flamy Grant rose to the occasion of releasing the first Christian album by a drag queen. Perhaps the song “Esther, Ruth, and Rahab,” with its use of the words cock, snatch, and fuck to convey admiration for the women of the Bible, stands out as the quickest way to get a sense the genuine and unexpected emotions this album has to offer. It’s perhaps more affirming than a traditional worship album, even while working to replace some of the exclusionary and patriarchal messages that can make religion feel like a less than welcoming place for so many in the LGBTQ+ community. Oh, and “Good Day” is a hymn – both queer and Christian – for the ages.

Flamy Grant, or at least the person who would grow up to embody Flamy Grant, did not need to be indoctrinated in any way. They were in their mother’s closet using skirts as dresses and poorly applying makeup as a toddler. Instead, they had to be talked into a life without drag.

“I think by about the time I started school is when I got the message from my folks that this is not okay actually,” Flamy said in an interview, dressed in full drag. As the title of the album would suggest, Flamy grew up in a conservative community. They described the ‘triad’ of church, Christian school, and a religious household that dominated their childhood and discouraged dressing as a woman.  

“For years, probably a good 30 years, I ignored and avoided any of those impulses,” Grant said. “It was really the pandemic and the lockdown that gave me all this extra time to dive into it. It was such a liberating, freeing experience for me.” 

They described a feeling of having conversation with their childhood self.

“This stuff you wanted to do? It’s okay. And actually there’s a market for it. You’re going to be alright, little one.” 

After working for a megachurch and being part of a team that started a new church in San Diego, Grant currently leads music for a different church in San Diego, though naturally a more progressive one this time.

“While serving in the church and doing these things I was also fully deconstructing my faith and trying to figure out what I believe,” they said. “I still struggle with the word Christian. It’s actually a piece that I’ve been able to offload onto Flamy. Flamy is the Christian artist. She can handle that. For me personally, Christian is a very difficult term because of what we have happening in our country with the religious right.”

They said that their goal in the church is to create space for queer folk to exist and be themselves. That’s where a song like “Good Day” comes in. It’s a worship song that Grant often performs in church and one that embraces both who they are and the ability to ‘come back home’ and be that person and be surrounded by love and support. It may be aspirational for many, but it really does exist in Grant’s church and it’s a beautiful thing to bask in.

“What we’re doing is not entirely for us,” Grant said of existing as a queer role model in a religious space. “We want it to be a good day now and forever.”

Unfortunately, Bible Belt Baby will not chart with other Christian albums. The category rejects albums with explicit language, and Grant couldn’t quite help themself.

“Look, I am a drag queen at the end of the day,” Grant explained. “I might put out a Christian record, but when I have a point to get across, sometimes colorful language is helpful to that end. It’s silly. It’s just a word and I’m not particularly concerned about words. I’m concerned about actions.”

Another standout song is the falsetto duet “Scratches” that describes people who have been through trauma trying to forge a life and connections. “Takes a Little Time” encourages patience and persistence in self growth. And “I Am Not Ashamed” delivers rap and melodramatic rock as a way of standing up to negative messaging. “Good Day” is certainly the best song on the album, but the preceding nine tracks build tension that the song so beautifully releases.

Above is the full episode as aired on WUSB’s Country Pocket, including both my interview with Flamy and the songs we discussed, starting with What Did You Drag Me Into?, which has a killer music video. The second part of the interview features some Bible lessons, aimed both at those unfamiliar with the Bible and evangelicals who only act unfamiliar with certain portions of the Bible. Lastly, there’s a video of Flamy Grant lip syncing to Amy Grant at a drag conference. You can hear the show live every Monday at 11am on WUSB 90.1 FM or check the blog to watch it as a YouTube playlist. Visit http://www.WUSB.fm and https://www.flamygrant.com for more.

Posted in On Air

Paisley Fields Tells a Midwestern Coming Out Story on Limp Wrist

There’s a certain sort of mood one might expect out of an album called Limp Wrist that features a ripped chest decorated with a small amount of leather. Paisley Fields proves that you really can’t judge a book by its cover.

The title track is good for a satisfying smirk. It teases the hypocritical hyper-masculine guys who would tease Fields for being gay. They might be against sex with men, just so long as that definition doesn’t include their own hands. But it’s “Iowa” that holds the emotional focus of the album. For all the discrimination Fields faces, religious or otherwise, nothing is quite as serious as his recognition that what happened to Matthew Shepard in nearby Wyoming could easily happen to him.

“I want to say I was maybe 13 or 14,” Fields said. “I remember it pretty clearly. I remember people debating if he deserved it because he was allegedly hitting on the two guys who ended up murdering him. That was a real moment where I realized it was not safe for me to come out.”

Fields felt forced to leave Iowa as a result of it all. For the most part, the album explores aspects of coming out and a confused identity that was part religious redneck and part music-loving gay man. “Black Hawk County Line” begins the album with Fields’ story of how a ‘friend’ outed him. “Giddy up Saturday Night” serves as a reminder that Fields will always be a native Iowan, one who could hunt and throw down with the rest of the boys if not for their bigotry. 

“Plastic Rosary” is where those two identities clash most directly. He talks about his experience as a child praying for forgiveness and how he’s learned to accept every part of himself, though he still carries a bit of pain from these adults telling him that “heaven is a place [he’ll] never see.” Religion was an integral part of young Fields’s life

“My first job was playing piano in the church and I felt a lot of conflict,” Fields said. “I was playing music and I was supported by this little country church that I was a part of, but I was also getting messages that just my very existence was wrong. It was pretty difficult to wrestle with that.” 

Luckily, Fields was able to overcome the “deep rejection” he’d receive from his and other churches in the area, even if it came at the cost of losing his personal relationship with religion.

“At the time I tried to shut part of myself off and for a while I tried to fit in,” Fields said. “Then I fully rejected it without ever dealing with it at all. But now I’ve gotten to the point where I understand that I know who I am and I’m not going to hide that for some religion.”

“Dial up Lover” is another standout track, in part for its incredible specificity. It’s a song that recalls that phase many a queer person went through in the aughts finding the connection they couldn’t find in school through Internet chat rooms. Trust me. It was a thing.

“That was the only way to meet other people in my hometown,” Fields explained. “I would log onto those AOL chatrooms to see who was in there and try to find somebody to talk to anonymously and to also discover who I was and who other people like me were and if they were out there somewhere.”

It’s worth noting that Fields felt it necessary and appropriate to end the album on a note of hope. “Tomorrow Finds a Way” is a reminder that things may be scary right now, but progress has been made. For someone like Fields, that can come in the form of personal growth and musical expression.

Above is the full episode as aired on WUSB’s Country Pocket, including both my interview with Paisley Fields and the songs we discussed, starting with Iowa, which really sets the stakes for the album. We also play a couple of Lavender Country songs as Fields has been playing keyboard for that pioneering band. You can hear the show live every Monday at 11am on WUSB 90.1 FM or check the blog to watch it as a YouTube playlist. Visit http://www.WUSB.fm and http://www.thepaisleyfields.com for more.