Johnny Cash

The Lost Art of the South

A gift from my musically esoteric boyfriend, my record player has been my proverbial time capsule to the American Southlands I call home. I load dusty albums from the past–kings and queens of country–on the record’s arm and they drop by themselves. So I stack up five of those melancholy discs, and listen to the A-sides. They play through, drop down, and I flip and start with the B-sides. Sadness, coated with betrayal, layered with loss, all held within the grooves of the black vinyl. These artists sing a different tune than the post-millennial country. They sing about dusty clay roads, but they also sing about the lowest lows of desolation and the prayers of the darkest night. They sing about prison and adultery, tragedy and comfort. Their words are not contrived and sometimes not even catchy–slow and dull and long–dragging on one continuous chord. But they come from a place exclusive to the South, a place that the South could be forgetting.

I was raised in and by the hills of Virginia so I am acquainted with bluegrass and the bucolic banjo pluck of the Appalachians. Life in the South to me has meant mountains and magnolias, bourbon and a sauntering pace of life. But until recently, I did not know the darkness of the deep musical movements coming from the South less than a half century ago. In this place, in the acapellas of low sadness and the hymns of wandering, I have found camaraderie with the land that hemmed and honed me as a young woman and as a contributor to family and place. The deeper I listen to Emmylou Harris, Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and the like, the deeper I enter the old South; a place where despondency, pride, and revelry exist within each other. Ever since the needle scratched and crackled through that first disc, the open space between me and my homeland, and all her past sins, triumphs, and profundity, has sealed.

Emmylou Harris was quoted recently in Garden & Gun magazine saying that she has given up on present-day country radio. “It no longer has that washed-in-the-blood element,” she said. And she’s right, alluding to this spiritually infused land where God is seen more with dirty shoes holding out redemption, rather than a glowing halo bestowing blessings. Some present-day artists–Gillian Welch, Patty Griffin, David Rawlings in particular–hold fast to the tenets of powerful, bleeding and vulnerable music of the South, but these artists are rare. The influence of the South is too often watered down to an occasional mechanized twang, girls who wear dresses with cowboy boots, and cheap beer cans. And behind the barbeque and pickup trucks, we have lost, or are at least losing, our edge.

William Faulkner at work.

It’s the same edge that the writers of our Southern fiction have made famous. The place of darkness which honed the literary voices of Flannery O’Connor’s grotesque, Edgar Allan Poe’s nightmares, and William Faulkner’s pontifications on death. The South provided a backdrop unmatched by other geographies, fostering art that feeds on our ability to make the worst of our lot.

This land of moonshine and muskets belies a deep disenchantment. O’Connor wrote that since we lost the war in the 19th century, we have ‘had our fall’–the type of fall that keeps the whole populace awake to their potent inability to pride themselves on themselves. We are aware that we can believe deeply and still, with sweat and blood, lose everything. The artists who embody the South do not wash worries in whimsy, but attempt connection amidst isolation, loss, and disillusionment.

Flannery O’Connor herself said that we may not be Christ-centered as much as we are ‘Christ-haunted.’ And these ghosts, as much as they keep us fearful and frightened, keep us wide-eyed and questioning. We have been the “Bible Belt” for decades, a symbol of centrality as much as corporal punishment. And we Southerners have been beaten by our own faith. We are holy tormented and wholly sanctified.

The South has created from this fallen place and offered the nation a voice otherwise unheard. A perspective cast through an interminable mix of searing nostalgia, bated hope, and a weighty present balanced between the two. For decades, artists let this land mold their perspectives. It was the Southern zeitgeist, and it is this curious mix of hope and sadness.

More recently, the blurring of state and cultural lines has come as a detriment to artists. We lose our senses and loosen our allegiances, as we drift above the lands. As O’Connor said, when we cease to create from the reality of our place, this Southern place, we have lost ourselves, and we have lost the South. Makoto Fujimura has said before, we have a language for the waywardness. What the South is beginning to miss is the language for the ties that bind. So the challenge for Southern artists now is to stay connected–to keep the ankles in the mud and the fires smoldering. To be a product of the palpable senses, and to let the sights, sounds, emotion and memory of your place build your reality and your platform. We need to reorient our perspective to move beyond what we do in the South, beyond fishing, hunting, and cooking with butter, and enter into who we are, in joy and in trial.

And perhaps, optimistically, we can find ourselves anew in the people who understand and channel this spirit, regardless of their geographical upbringing. Because in the end, what the South did was connect in the darkness. It is the invaluable voice of a fallen community that still echoes from my record player, and is still found within my pages of “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”

Johnny Cash sang that he wore black for the sick and lonely, for the reckless, and the mournin’, for the poor and beatin’, and the prisoner and the victim. And as artists create today, perhaps it is our duty to take on the strands and fringes of black both to honor and connect us to the spirit, land and people of our place. So we take from the fragmented pieces of our community’s collective conscience, take the black, and take the blood, and in doing so, create an enduring piece of work, reminiscent of this old melancholy.

Sandra McCracken:
A Red Balloon of Hope (Part 2)

This is the second of a two-part interview with singer-songwriter Sandra McCracken. You can read the first part here.

Is there a certain atmosphere in which you write best? A time of day, room in the house; tea or coffee?

It happens sporadically; it’s somewhat unexpected when that actually occurs. If I feel inspired to write something, I have to take advantage of it as quickly as I can because they are fleeting moments, those clear moments of inspiration or a clear thought; journaling is really helpful. The music part can happen a lot more easily and regularly. If I sit down, I can chip away at something and I’ll come back to it and reevaluate and reshape it. But especially the lyrics and ideas – they happen when they happen. The challenge is to carve out enough space in my brain and schedule where I can be open and listening to that voice in my head.

I do like to record and sing vocals in the morning. Having a home studio is really conducive to that. When you’re paying for a studio by the hour, there’s often a lot of pressure. It’s such a different environment than having a home studio and going upstairs with a cup of coffee, still in your PJ’s, and recording something before you have time to over-think it. We did a lot of that on Red Balloon.

In “Storehouse”, I noticed a nod to Emmylou (the first waves of wisdom swing like a wrecking ball); and in “Big Blue Sky”, another to U2 (I still haven’t found what I’m looking for). How influential are these artists on your songwriting?

Those are both very influential artists/bands, and Wrecking Ball is in my top five. I listened to a lot of U2 during high school a little before that; they made a big impression – I love the approach lyrically. I don’t have to say that Achtung Baby and Joshua Tree are such culture-shaping albums and they certainly affected me in those ways, too. And I didn’t come into Wrecking Ball until a few years after it released. It’s just a quintessential piece of music from start to finish as a whole. Emmylou Harris and U2 are so different, but they’ve both made me who I am in a lot of ways.

Some of your songs reveal a beauty in melancholy and suffering, and at the same time, they’re comforting and empathetic. Are you conscious of this as you write?

It’s definitely a reflection of my personality and the way I see the world, the way I absorb things that happen around me. I’m conscious of trying to be as genuine and honest as I can with every lyric and everything that’s written. Sometimes I lean towards the ballads; it makes sense to go that way with the temperament I have. As long as I’m being honest, I don’t want to filter it too much as far as where it should go, but I certainly try to weave hope into even the darkest bits. As an artist, I think it’s appropriate to ask challenging questions or to open the door for people to ask their own challenging questions without feeling like you have to answer them or tie it all up neatly in a bow. I’m very conscious of the idea that there is a thread of hope that runs even in the darkest fabrics. I want to put that in there because in our season in life – where we are as a culture and in the world – I think cynicism can take over so easily. As a follower of Jesus, even, I try to weave that thread of hope into these songs and words. Hope is like a muscle we exercise; we choose to believe in these moments that these things will be made right. This is what we hope for. It’s like a new freedom to allow your heart to be broken because if you didn’t have hope, that would just be a bottomless pit. Those two things have a delicate balance, where we find ourselves living somewhere between the brokenness and the hope.

• You can hear songs from Red Balloon at the sampler on NoiseTrade.
‚Ä¢ To buy Red Balloon, visit Sandra McCracken’s web store, iTunes, or Amazon mp3.
• Sandra is currently on national tour with Derek Webb, Sara Groves, Charlie Peacock, and Brandon Heath for the Art Music Justice tour.

A song from Red Balloon – “The Tie That Binds” – is on the Art Music Justice tour compilation. How is this tour different from others you’ve been a part of?

It’s very different. We’ve just begun, actually. I’ve done a few collaborative tours with various artists and they’re always really enjoyable and interesting because each artist is so unique, one to the next. That’s a great thing for audiences to experience. The Art Music Justice tour is similar in that way to things I’ve done, but it’s different in the sense that it’s centered around using music, story, and what we have as artists to raise awareness for International Justice Mission and Food for the Hungry. IJM does incredible work with human trafficking by way of international law – going in, rescuing, and breaking down these rings of oppression of various kinds all over the world. It’s totally different than a normal tour for us. It’s a great feeling to put yourself aside and come together for a larger purpose, something that’s bigger than you just making another album. And the shows are mostly in churches, which is a different kind of venue, and the turnouts are bigger than one of my normal shows would be. I feel really honored to be a part of it.

What does justice mean to you?

It’s funny being a part of this tour. There are five of us and I think I’m more abstract – some of the spiritual meaning is a little more implicit in the way I write. I don’t really have protest songs like my husband does, so I didn’t know if I would fit into the tour. But as we started talking about how to pursue these shows, I started thinking about how justice (and the other themes) are written into and implicit in a lot of my relationship songs and in some of the presuppositions undergirding this material. Justice to me means the being made right of all things. There is a sense in which we can’t fix everything, but we work toward it and we try to relieve people that are in oppressive situations. I don’t have the resources to go into a brothel and make the situation right. But IJM does, and if I can play a few songs and they can go in by way of money generated from raising awareness on the tour, it’s one piece that I can contribute to this larger story. So to me, justice is all wrapped in that. I want to be the best writer and performer that I can be so that it gives some credibility toward people who can go further down that road and actually be the hands and feet of bringing justice and light to those dark places.

I downloaded the AMJ tour compilation from NoiseTrade, a revolutionary project. How has it benefited you as an artist?

Well, it’s been great – it’s paid the mortgage a month or two. And it’s been amazing to have people who like your music get the word out. They can give it to people who’ve never heard of you and help give exposure to someone like me. I don’t have a big budget behind me to get a song on the radio or anything like that. So a NoiseTrade campaign allows me to get more people to listen to my music. People who are interested can really latch onto that. They end up coming to a show or they can pay what they want, and there are so many other avenues in which they can come back and support you as an artist. It all really starts with that bonding: me giving away an album (or a batch of songs). It’s the least I can do to connect and find more people who might be interested in hearing it. It’s been a really great experience.

Albert Lamorisse’s film The Red Balloon

I read about the new album’s title on your blog, namely Albert Lamorisse’s film, The Red Balloon. What spoke to you in the film and how did it inspire the concept of your album?

I thought long and hard about this title. I saw that film when I was younger and they just did a re-make [Flight of the Red Balloon] that I need to see; I heard it’s really amazing. The original film [The Red Balloon] traces this story of a little boy and a red balloon and everything is in mostly black & white except the balloon. It’s in French, but I don’t know if there are any subtitles because there’s hardly any dialogue at all. There’s all this beautiful, playful interaction – the balloon follows him to school and gets him in trouble; stays with him and becomes his friend. At one point, there’s a group of boys that are picking on the one kid and they come after him to steal his balloon. The mean boys pop his balloon in a moment of tragedy and in the next scene, you see a bunch of balloons find the little boy and take him for a ride over the city. It’s a crazy, beautiful story. It’s very much like a children’s story, but it has these layers that I think are pivotal to the human experience: the friendship, the tragedy, and the ultimate transcendence, and how that traces our greatest story lines. The movie is so simple and doesn’t require any explanation in a sense, even though I just explained a lot of it.

I wanted a title that was whimsical and had an element of childhood because of some of my journey over the last year, but I also wanted something with other layers that you could peel back and find ways that it all fit in. “Red balloon” is a lyric in “Big Blue Sky” that I co-wrote with Katie Herzig and I wasn’t thinking about the film at the time, but then it came back around and seemed like a perfect fit, to nod to the film. And it’s just a striking image; it seems to capture the spirit of this record.

I’d like to see both of those films. Now, The Curator looks for what is rehumanizing in our culture – goodness, truth, and beauty; signs that point to “a world that ought to be.” What do you find to be rehumanizing in our culture?

That’s a great question that we should keep coming back to because it’s always going to be a different answer depending on your life stage, and it’s always worth asking. Something that’s been on the front of my mind the last few years with these transitions is caregiving – really caring for the people that you live with and that you love. People want to find their soul mate, get married, and have this perfect thing, but then it’s almost like a stepping stone because once you’re in that relationship, it’s so easy to look past it to your career and other things. But to really think about caregiving, day-to-day living, and caring for the people closest to you (in your life) is such an important work. It not only reflects our character, it builds our character, and it really has the power to change everything. Having a husband that loves me well and that affirms me has been so shaping and healing in my life. It sounds like a kind of simple and maybe a romantic idea, but it’s really not.

I heard someone (maybe Tim Keller) say that if you tell somebody something every day – even if it’s not true – they’re going to believe it. So if you keep saying, “You’re overweight”, they’re going to think that no matter what. They could be 5’5″ and weigh 90 lbs. and still feel like that. The thing is, the reverse is true as well. You should affirm someone unto the end by saying, “I know that you have this in you. I know that you can do these things. I know that you can reach your goals in life. I know that you have this.” Whether it’s a child, a friend, or a spouse, caring for and serving each other seems to be the primary catalyst for bringing and restoring good in my life and in the world around me right now. It’s a super-messy work. I see that in my family and with people I’m really close to when there’s unexpected and long-term sickness, or alcoholism passed down from one generation to the next. When you watch these things and you enter into them, it is never easy. It always feels like you want to throw your hands up because you have no idea what to even say in some of those moments. But that really feels like the fundamental inner-workings of who we are and who we’re becoming, and how we can make this place and this life more as it should be. For me, it’s relational and revolves around those primary relationships.

That is a great answer. Thanks so much for doing this interview, Sandra.

I’m really glad to do it – this was fun and it’s good to hear you.

For Further Listening
– Check out her discography which can be purchased on her web store or iTunes.
– Also on iTunes, you’ll find Sandra’s songs from the Caedmon’s Call albums In the Company of Angels, Back Home, and Overdressed, and the song “Ten Thousand Angels” (featuring Derek Webb) which aired on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
– Check out Sandra’s work on the Indelible Grace records.

Sandra McCracken:
A Red Balloon of Hope (Part 1)

Singer/songwriter Sandra McCracken has crafted beautiful, thought-provoking songs for seven albums now. Musically, she’s well-known for folk-rock, pop, and Americana sensibilities; lyrically, she frames attentive, abstract ideas. On her latest album, Red Balloon, she marries her trademarks with innovative layers of electronic sound creating a work of ethereal spirit, as in the first song, “Guardian” – an organ note pressed down, sounding like a hovering over still waters. One by one, electric piano, guitar, and a drum loop form music out of a singular resonance. Sandra’s soulful, honest vocal sings with consolation, an empathetic melody:

Hold on to me
when you are so tired,
when you are so tired
of holding up your hand.

Steady on your feet
I will not let you stumble,
will not let you stumble,
I will not fall asleep.

When you go out,
when you come home,
like a hedge,
like a shield,
I’ll be your guardian.

And so her lyrics remain conceptual and run deep – yet in a lovely paradox, words from Red Balloon relate more directly to each listener. The genesis of these changes to unfiltered production and intimacy began on a duet EP, Ampersand, created with her husband (fellow songwriter Derek Webb) in their upstairs studio. The freedom of making music on the home front worked very well – so much so that they continued the process on Red Balloon, inviting their friend from the neighborhood, Cason Cooley, to join in the musical and production efforts. In this familiar setting, spontaneous captures reveal the most genuine, uninhibited performances from McCracken to date.

• You can hear songs from Red Balloon at the sampler on NoiseTrade.
‚Ä¢ To buy Red Balloon, visit Sandra McCracken’s web store, iTunes, or Amazon mp3.
• Sandra is currently on national tour with Derek Webb, Sara Groves, Charlie Peacock, and Brandon Heath for the Art Music Justice tour.

Another recurrent idea on Red Balloon is motherhood (she gave birth to a son last year), yet these maternal concepts are blanketed with symbolism – not only to women with children, but to anyone seeking protection, care, and guidance. She points to where such solace can be found, and writes essential songs for our culture – a society in which marriages shatter every day and motherhood is diminished from its vital role in shaping humanity, in which we neglect to truly care for our neighbor, and where the bone-weary tread desolate terrain with almost every step. Sandra McCracken’s songs remind us of the fundamentals of goodness, the hopeful truth of restoration, and our part in this healing.

Red Balloon is a quintessential record – in my top 10 – so I was excited for the chance to pick this musician’s brain. With a cup of coffee in hand, I settled into my own upstairs “studio” to talk with Sandra, a very kind, good soul.

Well, I love the new album. It’s pretty much all I’ve been listening to lately.

Thank you so much.

I hear similarities in production on Ampersand and Red Balloon. Is that due to a change in how you and Derek worked together on both projects?

Yeah, we kind of hit a stride in the way we approached Ampersand. We were thinking about this next record and it definitely seemed like one spilled right into the other. Some of it was intentional because that duet album was such a carefree experience of being able to make the record sound like anything we wanted. There were no constraints, no labels; it was such an open, creative experience. We wanted to set the tone like that for Red Balloon as well, and there was even a little overlap in the recording process, so it’s interesting that you noticed.

Did any musicians inspire you to be more experimental with elements of electronica, layers, and so on?

There were a few things we were listening to. The last couple years, I loved the orchestration of Sufjan Stevens and the way he experiments with sound. His records really keep me coming back. There’s so much to listen to, and it sounds so human. At the same time, it’s not just polished ear candy. He takes a different approach entirely; it is orchestration, but it’s not over-thought – it’s still very spirited. And Derek was listening to a lot of Gnarls Barkley. He’s working on another project that will have lots of electronica elements – even like the Trent Reznor record, The Slip. He’s been listening to a lot of things that are heavier in terms of programming.

For a long time I was resistant to that idea because I wanted my records to be timeless. So, after making a handful of records, I started to feel a little liberty. I shouldn’t hold myself back or restrain the sound of the record just because something is modern, current, or hip. That sounds backward, because a lot of people pursue that cutting-edge sound quality. I’ve almost resisted it because I didn’t want the records to sound dated when you look back. So this album joined two philosophies: maintain a timeless, soulful performance, but also use the newest tools from the moment. In this case, we used a program called Stylist to build and work with the loops. It was part of the writing in these songs, almost like another musician – having this other technological part involved, like you’re dealing with some other inanimate being.

Why does the Red Balloon packaging include two discs with five songs each? Is it a thematic layout?

There was some talk along the way of making two EPs, partly because making and getting feedback on Ampersand was such a good experience. There are six songs – it’s like a full meal, but it’s not so long that you lose the last four songs, and end up only knowing the first half of the record. People listen to music differently than they did even ten years ago as we move from a CD format to the iPod. I wanted to make two sides with smaller, digestible bits of art, though they’re definitely made to go together. It’s a different listening experience, where you can drive from your house to a lunch appointment with one record, and one on the way back.

I keep linking two songs – “Saturn’s Fields” and “The High Countries.” They’re both at the end of a disc; both describe embarking on a train or bus to unknown, otherworldly scenery. Is there a connection?

They do have similar themes, but they were written at very different times. “The High Countries” was written some years ago, inspired by C.S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce. The images are pulled out of Lewis’ imagination. He talks about a purgatorial state, as if you had a moment to look back over your life and think about the decision of whether or not to have faith. It’s a fascinating, very imaginative story about the characters and the things they held onto in their life – what they were unwilling to part with in order to embrace faith.

“Saturn’s Fields” is a personal reflection of stepping off a ledge into the unknown of a new place in your life. Preparing for some unknown change is like planning to move to another planet – you have no idea how to do that. You just have to go and get on that train and find yourself in a new place. So, the songs are very different in terms of inspiration, but they both have almost a fictional setting that helps you go to that emotional place.

Fiction often does that, just thinking out loud.

It’s a useful tool for sure. Fiction can be a remarkable place to tell real truth because it’s so disarming. It takes you out of the confines of reality. You stop thinking, “Oh, that could never happen,” and start exploring the possibilities on many levels.

Does C.S. Lewis have a big impact on your art in general?

I have read a number of his writings over the years, so I’d say so, but there are other books, too, like The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Shack, A Wrinkle in Time, Many Waters, and Spiderman graphic novels. I used to feel like I should only read things that were concrete and easy to find your way into, but I’ve really enjoyed fiction a lot more over the last few years, some of Lewis’ as well. As an artist, I’m scolding myself for having missed that because fiction is such an inspiring medium for me as a songwriter.

I read a few biographies and autobiographies the past couple years, too, like Cash by Johnny Cash this last summer. I just love hearing people’s stories – their real stories as well as fiction, things I had overlooked and came back to, books I should have read and missed somehow. Maybe it’s because we had a baby and I’ve had little blocks of time where I could digest more reading. It sounds funny because you would think you have less time, but you have a different kind of time.

Why did you choose to revisit “The High Countries” after writing it for Caedmon’s Call [Back Home]?

I had been playing it live and people asked for it at shows. It has such an ethereal quality that seemed to really match some of the material on this record; the story it tells. It seemed to fit and it never really had before. When I wrote it I didn’t plan to record it because I imagined Danielle [Young] singing; it was very much tailored for her. I wanted to see if we could come up with something fitting for this album and also would feel like I could try it on myself. I think it was a good match.

Definitely. It is interesting how it’s the same song, yet both versions are very different and match both of your voices so well.

Thank you.

I gathered “Storehouse” is about your son – it’s a fun, inspiring look into motherhood; such a great song. How has motherhood affected your creative process?

I think I expected that my creativity would slow or come to a screeching halt. That is true in the very beginning – you’re kind of in a fog right before and for a couple months afterwards. That transition is so intense and takes your whole being to make that change. But soon after, I started journaling and writing down thoughts that didn’t make a lot of sense at the time and some of these songs came out of that. As we got into the groove, I did have large blocks of time where I was at home and felt really creative.

Motherhood is such a creative work, and it definitely begets more creativity. It’s like your creative muscle gets started and flexes in different areas. I was relieved, and it helped me feel like a whole person – that I was still able to create music and songs and have things to say. Some of this was about that experience, but some of it was other reflections on what was happening around me and within me, not related to having a baby. It was important to me to try to draw from all of it, from the whole experience, not just one narrow view of it. That was a goal in writing this batch of songs. I wanted to personally reflect on the change that had been going on, but also be accessible to people that didn’t go through this specific year that I did. Maybe that’s a good ideal to maintain as an artist because you want to connect and you also want to be vulnerable. You have to have both sides.

The conversation with Sandra McCracken will be continued in the October 17 edition.

For Further Listening
– Check out her discography which can be purchased on her web store or iTunes.
– Also on iTunes, you’ll find Sandra’s songs from the Caedmon’s Call albums In the Company of Angels, Back Home, and Overdressed, and the song “Ten Thousand Angels” (featuring Derek Webb) which aired on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
– Check out Sandra’s work on the Indelible Grace records.