I want to believe in American music. I need to believe in American music. Without the all-too-human regeneration that created it in the first place, with booze and heartache and loneliness, American music and American culture would become a plastic creation by the one percent, something phony made to be bought from Amazon and iTunes and be thrown away, all at the discretion of faceless greed heads. Music would remain a sad product for a soulless time. It would be relegated to the basement of the fashion industry, a seasonal accessary, an ever-fading piece of market accenting, disposable and tawdry. Instead of what it really is, down under all the mirrors and horse shit: the soul of American life itself. I need American music because I came of age in a time of musicologist musicians like Alan Lomax and Stephen Wade, and the miracle of the Library of Congress vinyl-record archives, brainy, spooky cool men and women collecting and saving the scattered shards of our musical Big Bang, vital evidence of the unchanging power of one person and one guitar, and a story to tell. Songs born alone on six strings. Songs borne aloft by hardship, testing, passion, and endurance.
There’s a tension in American music, between rebellion and home, between breaking away from security and staying put, between the road and retreating to safer lives. There’s also a snarl, probably because America, for all its glittery self-made-man wishful fantasizing, is deeply insecure about how it got all of its independence, all of its riches, some of which it doesn’t deserve. America is always just a little worried about being caught out, and being thought a fraud. But when it’s real, and done right, American music can reveal an honesty and a vulnerability and a Fountain of Youth swagger unmatched in world music. It can reveal who we really are, still.
American Aquarium, the Raleigh, North Carolina-based alt-country band built their house, their career, and then decided to set fire to it all, and walk away before the embers cooled. And then they made “Burn.Flicker.Die.” (Last Chance Records, 2012), and everything changed. As their house burned, they changed their minds, and ran inside to save the best bits. BJ Barnham discovered he had more to say, thank God. Recorded in the ghostly, swampy landscape of Muscle Shoals, Alabama (it’s unclear exactly which studio building was used, but I’m dying to know), and produced by Jason Isbell (sometime contributor to the Drive-By Truckers, another band I wear like a tarnished charm around my neck, a talisman to protect me, like a prayer, from the fakes), we know exactly which kennel this puppy came from.
Live, on stage, American Aquarium is wound up pretty damn tight (they opened for Justin Townes Earle at The Neptune, in Seattle, this week). Look at my pictures! There’s a snarl, for sure, and a tension like something ferrel chained up in the yard. Their songs bite hard, sometimes. If you missed the likes of Townes Van Zandt or Hank Williams live on stage, and most of us did (quick, you can still catch a Merle Haggard show if you do it right now), you can still feel it. That low hum of American regeneration. American Aquarium had to go on making records (get their stuff on vinyl for the authentic burn) because that’s what real American music does to people, especially the people who make it. Sometimes I don’t even think it has anything to do with choice. Writers write. I bet it’s always a thrill to reach a lot of people, but the real shit is created off the stage, late at night, alone, when the cicadas are buzzing so loud you feel like you’re in a box. It’s about faith. It’s about fear. It’s about being alone, and praying to God the next word comes before the night swallows you up, and the music in your head stops, maybe forever. So you write like your life depends on it. Because it does.