Craig Kinsey, American Roots and Machines
There’s a darkness to America, to our history. It’s a stark, surprising contrast to a lot of our country’s accepted story, because we’ve managed to brand ourselves as this great, shining city on a hill, something other countries should aspire to emulate, to be. And yet, when you scrape away that surface layer of gleaming rah-rah Americanism, there’s a lot of awful, terrible things we’ve done as a country (to others and to ourselves) to get to where we are.
I don’t say this because I somehow hate the nation I call home, mind you; far from it. But I figure that if we want to truly be that country other countries want to emulate, we should be honest with ourselves and acknowledge, even embrace, those dark parts of our collective story.
Obviously, it’s not an easy thing to hear, or even think about. Ironically, the medium that often seems to speak most to that stuff is rootsy, countryish, folky music; I’m not even talking about protest-folkies, but about the music that comes from deeper back in the woods, where story-songs can be grim and bleak and truthful all at the same time.
It’s a tradition that goes back to Europe, at the least, and probably a lot further back than that. Once upon a time, we relied on musicians to tell us things we needed to hear; important things, facts and realities embellished in verse, as they roamed from town to town, spreading their news in the only way then possible.
Those days are long, long gone, naturally, but listening to American Roots and Machines, the latest release from Sideshow Tramps frontman Craig Kinsey, I find myself thinking about those times and that kind of music, because at its heart, that’s what this album’s about. It’s hard not to see Kinsey as an heir to that same tradition, and I suspect he thinks the same, given the line “Men make sense of our world / In sacred hymns and rhymes”, in the 14-minute-long “Gettysburg”.
Throughout the album, Kinsey rambles across the whole American landscape, historical and current, casting a skeptical, cautious eye at the wonders of our modern-day world. The America of today that he shows us is a place where technology does awesome, amazing things but where people still feel like they’re missing something, like there’s a hole in their souls. That kicks in right at the start with “Dissatisfied,” which is an ode to a woman who’s got everything but wants something else beyond the life envisioned for her, and it continues on through the swinging rock of “What Is It That You Want?”
The whole theme comes into sharp focus on “American Chant,” a down-in-the-holler dirge that tells the story of this country in three-and-a-half minutes of voices and verse and ends on a sobering note, predicting that our post-Industrial Age world will eventually hurl itself back to the Stone Age. It’s pretty impressive, tying together the highs and lows of our evolution as a people and a nation and seemingly yearning for a way to step back to a simpler, less digitized, disconnected era.
I’m tempted to label “Chant” as the absolute high point of American Roots and Machines, but it’s a tough call between that and the track that seems destined to be Kinsey’s masterwork, the aforementioned “Gettysburg”. “Chant” is amazing for its breadth, but “Gettysburg” is equally amazing for its focus, building a well-constructed, fully-formed story around the Battle of Gettysburg and making a definite point about man and his capacity both for hatred and for change in the process.
One of the hardest, trickiest things for a songwriter to tackle is to try to take a historical event and adapt it into a song; to put it bluntly, odds are good you’re going to fuck it up. Here, though, Kinsey’s succeeded pretty admirably, encapsulating the Civil War in one longish tune that brings to mind Irish folk songs about The Troubles, where “did-they-really-exist?” characters stand in for the masses of people who feel the pain of the fight. It cements Kinsey as a bona-fide troubadour, at least in my mind, a storyteller who can spin a tale in any format he chooses.
As might be expected from the ultra-talented cast of friends and compatriots Kinsey’s dragged along for the ride — which includes The Suffers’ Kam Franklin, Chase Hamblin, fellow tramp Geoffrey Muller, The Suspects’ Chuy Terrazas, Southern Backtones’ Hank Schyma, and Two Star Symphony’s Jerry Ochoa, among others — the album shines on the musical side of things, as well.
Each track dances nimbly from one genre to another, never settling down for long, from the arena-rock, Marshall stacks sound of “What Is It That You Want?”, which comes off like Tom Petty as covered by Fountains of Wayne, to the crashing, chaotic burst of opera in “Puccini’s Drunk Again” (featuring an honest-to-God aria, of course), to the full-on gospel of “New World Now,” which sees Kinsey playing his part as the preacher and doing a call-and-response with choir and congregation before smoothly shifting into the full arrangement.
There’s also “I’m Not Part Of A Scene,” which is all stomping, jagged-edged, start-stop boogie, complete with blasting horns and backing gang vocals, the gritty, downhome blues of “Broke and Hungry,” and the friendly-yet-defiant, Latin-tinged closer “Credits,” which is about the end of a movie but could stand in for the end of anything, prett much, from a relationship to the world.
The playing’s especially jaw-dropping on “Say, Jesus (A Homeless Man Talks To Jesus),” a fragile, contemplatively bitter little chunk of walking blues that segues into a gorgeous, gorgeous turn with banjo and fiddle, and “To Kill A Mockingbird,” which echoes Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and gently ambles along as the narrator tries to understand how things could have gone the way they have. All in all, American Roots and Machines is less an “album” and more a snapshot of one of Kinsey’s legendarily varied, anything-goes live shows.
Taken as a whole, this is one hell of a piece of work; it’s magnificent, frankly, and a little hard to even take in all at once (I recommend headphones, especially if you want to catch the little bits like the mouth-harp lurking off to the left side on “Dissatisfied”). And not only is it great as an album, but it’s great as a collaborative effort for the players involve, people who hail from every corner of Houston’s diverse music scene.
I found myself chuckling and shaking my head at Kinsey’s declaration that he’s not part of the scene, because he most certainly is — with this album, in fact, he demonstrates that he’s one of the scene’s cornerstones, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of, no way.
(Feature photo by Jill English Photography.)