Thanksgiving: "We went to Cracker Barrel!"

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My parents are vague about who suggested eating at Cracker Barrel for our first Thanksgiving Dinner. It doesn’t strike them as important enough to remember. It certainly wasn’t a suggestion based on experience, because we’d never even been to the place before.

My family had been living in the States for four years (we originally hail, for the most part, from Great Britain) before my parents decided to celebrate Thanksgiving at all. I don’t think those Thanksgivingless years had anything to do with a conscious resistance of the holiday. The lack of celebration probably had more to do with a total ignorance of the occasion, limited kitchen space, and the price of turkeys. My mother would, with a penny-pincher’s logic, head off to the shop to buy a turkey in the days following Thanksgiving: that’s when the birds went on sale.

This behavior shocked the neighbors, even if they did appreciate a good bargain on poultry. Thanksgiving was so simple: gather, eat, be thankful, take an afternoon nap. Why couldn’t we just ­do it?

So it was with no small degree of excitement that I found myself in our station wagon, headed to that “large wooden structure full of white people,” as urbandictionary.com puts it. I possessed, as only a despairingly shy ten-year-old can, a keen desire to fit in, and celebrating Thanksgiving seemed a step in the right direction.

I don’t, however, remember a thing I ate. I know I ate turkey. I just know. Each year, Cracker Barrel opens its doors to hungry Thanksgiving diners – and there are lots – and serves up plates of traditional holiday fare: turkey, potatoes, vegetables, all covered in gravy.

What I do remember is sitting in my sixth-grade classroom the following Monday. Our teacher went around the class, asking each of us what we ate for Thanksgiving Dinner. I was ­so glad we’d finally celebrated, so glad I had a proper answer for my teacher that day. After listening to stories about various grandmothers’ pecan pies and sweet potato casseroles, Mrs. McKnight leveled her gaze at me.

“What about you, Susie?”

“We went to Cracker Barrel!” I proclaimed, and perceived the silence that followed as shocked jealousy.

***

These days, my parents are assimilated enough to be embarrassed by our virgin Thanksgiving Cracker Barrel venture. In fact, as I write, I have texted my mother: can she really not remember whose idea it was to go? She replies quickly: she can’t remember if it was her or my dad. Why?

Ildar Sagdejev

Ildar Sagdejev

“I’m writing about it,” I say.

“Oh no!” she replies, and I know she wishes I would just forget the incident once and for all. My fixation on the company has lasted years now and she is well aware that the fact that my first Thanksgiving was spent at Cracker Barrel serves as much of the foundation of my interest.

After all, Thanksgiving 1996 proved to be the only one my family spent at a Cracker Barrel. Since then, we have been lucky enough to either get invited to other families’ meals or, as is the case the last few years, we have gathered together to cook the meal in my parents’ kitchen. Our Cracker Barrel days are largely behind us, tucked away with other memories of Not Quite Belonging.

But they’re not behind me, and that’s why, in 2011, I decided to write my Master’s thesis on Cracker Barrel. And while they were bathed in the clunky language of higher academia, the 126 pages of that thesis ultimately tried to answer one simple question: why did we end up at Cracker Barrel for our first Thanksgiving Dinner?

***

When I first began working on my thesis, much of my research involved dissecting the impersonal, corporate side of Cracker Barrel – the side marketed to the American consumer. Soon after beginning, I found myself in touch with Julie Davis, a spokeswoman for the company. She relayed a story to me about a first-time diner at a Cracker Barrel in an undisclosed location somewhere north of the Mason-Dixon line: when asked if he wanted grits with his breakfast, he replied, “Sure, I’ll try one.”[1]

I still wonder if the story is true, or simply Cracker Barrel lore. It is, after all, a charming anecdote relaying the endearing naiveté of a regionally ignorant customer, one that stresses the unique experience and cuisine, provided by Cracker Barrel, of the South (albeit in a non-southern location). Whatever the case, the story is significant concerning one thing: Cracker Barrel operates on a reputation built on its southern origins. Beyond that, though, the company markets the ideas of “rural,” “southern,” and “old-fashioned” interchangeably, with all of those terms falling under the umbrella of “America,” with a capital A.

When asked how the ideals embodied by an old country store were still relevant to a generation increasingly removed from them (in fact, young enough to always have been removed from them), Davis said that the “core things” that Cracker Barrel offered “go from generation to generation”: things like a home away from home, and a “happy place” to come to. She also remarked that having a family meal is a phenomenon that “seems to be rare in America” – and something that Cracker Barrel claims to offer.[2]

Looked at from that viewpoint, it makes sense: my family simply went to a happy place to eat an important American family meal! Thus the popularity of Cracker Barrel’s Thanksgiving Dinner, and the chain’s willingness to open its doors on that day. Nevertheless, I kept encountering too much company-generated spin about the so-called realness of it all. I didn’t trust it. I needed to get closer to Cracker Barrel.

***

Most of us have been inside at least one Cracker Barrel. One’s enough: go in one and you’ve essentially been in them all. Cracker Barrel’s signature look, no matter what the location, is one of carefully managed clutter, with objects spread densely across the walls and hanging suspended from the ceilings. This standard décor is outside as well as inside the building: rusty Coke signs, anonymous sepia and black and white portraits of men, women, and children, and objects that range from the harmlessly random (a framed ad for sugar) to the strange and disconcerting (a saw hanging from the ceiling).

The revelatory thing about Cracker Barrel’s décor is that every single item hanging from the restaurant’s walls and ceilings is authentic, in the sense that not a single artifact is reproduced for Cracker Barrel.[3] On the company’s website there is the complete story of the Singleton family, who have been decorating Cracker Barrels since 1969, when it was founded.

Billy Hathorn

Billy Hathorn

Kathleen and Don Singleton, Cracker Barrel founder Dan Evins’s first set of in-laws, owned an antique shop in Evins’s hometown of Lebanon, Tennessee, and agreed to help decorate his new business venture. They stepped up their work when the company began expanding, shopping for antiques at various shows. In 1979 their son, Larry, started on the job and is now the man responsible for much of the work done at the décor warehouse in Lebanon.[4]

Such is the attention paid to Larry Singleton on the company’s website that it didn’t take long before I stopped believing in him as a real person and more as an inflated company character. For a chain as large as Cracker Barrel to have maintained a direct tie to its origins seemed suspicious to me, and I didn’t place too much credence in Larry as a truly active person in the company. My lack of trust, however, was bothering me, in part because I’m naturally trusting to the point of being gullible. In other words, I felt bad for not believing a little more in Cracker Barrel.

Finally, in mid-September 2011, I had a breakthrough with the company: I was allowed inside the décor warehouse. I was speaking with Jeanne Ludington, a company spokeswoman who sounded puzzled by my interest in the company, and seemed to want to make sure that I was not going out of my way to visit Lebanon.[5] Nevertheless, she promised me a tour of the décor warehouse. I couldn’t believe it.

Cracker Barrel’s headquarters are located off of a wide road two exits west of the main Lebanon exit on I-40. They consist of four large buildings spread across a pleasant, neatly manicured green that featured walking paths and lots of trees. Cars drove slowly. Employees on break power-walked together. I was mystified by the size of the compound, and drove wide-eyed towards Building 4, as per Jeanne’s directions.

Building 4 was a large, neat building with a large, neat reception area. There were tall windows, lots of natural light, and sofas to sit on. I signed in at reception, where an elderly woman named Peggy was hurriedly fielding phone call after phone call. She looked like anybody’s kindly grandma, and acted the part too. Taking a break from the switchboard for a moment, she looked at me and apologized for having a “person in her ear” before answering the next call.

Then Jeanne walked up to me. In her fifties or sixties, she was dressed in business attire and held a phone and a notepad. Her brisk manner conveyed a sense of business and urgency and tightly controlled patience. She introduced herself to me and led me straight to the décor warehouse, just a few minutes’ walk from Building 4.

Cracker Barrel’s décor warehouse is where all the items that adorn Cracker Barrels are stored and organized before they are sent out to new stores. It is colossal, and full of tall, wide shelves lined up one after another. It’s reminiscent of an IKEA, or a Home Depot: clean, vast, organized. Objects are classed into groups according to description, such as “Oval Children” (oval portraits of children), “Traffic lights” (you can guess) and so on. There were children’s tricycles, old cleaning equipment, cast iron pots.

As Jeanne led me into the warehouse, she mentioned that Larry might be around. And then, as if on cue, he appeared. Larry Singleton, of www.crackerbarrel.com fame! He shook my hand and smiled and looked every part his online persona: just as in his photograph on the company website, he was wearing a plaid shirt and suspenders over blue jeans. His hair was the same, his glasses the same, and his demeanor – friendly, with a seemingly genuine enthusiasm about his work – was convincing. He even had a strong southern accent. I was thrilled, shocked, subdued. It was as if a cartoon character had come to life.

Larry was real, and he looked just like he did in the pictures, and here I was in Cracker Barrel’s very real décor warehouse, full of genuinely old things! Everything about Cracker Barrel was real!

Alan Poizner/Courtesy of Cracker Barrel

Alan Poizner/Courtesy of Cracker Barrel

Larry’s office was cozy, and full of old objects. I spotted some sort of animal pelt on a shelf behind his desk, and I noticed that he had a dated Cracker Barrel menu stuck on the back of his door. I asked if there had ever been any contentious or controversial objects displayed in a Cracker Barrel – by accident or not. Larry said the company had always avoided using any Civil War memorabilia whatsoever, and definitely never displayed the Confederate flag or anything similar. “We’re just an old country store,” he said, quoting the website. Or was he? Where had I heard that first? Did he just happen to say it? I was confused, pleased, star-struck. I left Cracker Barrel’s headquarters worried that my research had reached an impasse: after all, how do you spartanly dissect something when it’s so real and meaningful to another person?

Not that Cracker Barrel was that meaningful to me at any point. My family’s trip there in 1996 had, for me, taken on value only as a potentially revealing, almost anthropological incident: revelatory of our ignorance as immigrants, revelatory of a certain element of Cracker Barrel’s adverting and appeal. And so my research went on. I found, however, that my focus had shifted from analyzing the company’s large-scale marketing strategies (in order, I suppose, to find out what had worked on my family), to puzzling over the dichotomy of a large national chain that still maintains ties to its roots, however tenuous sometimes.

Well, dichotomies are indeed puzzling. But I know why we went to Cracker Barrel for Thanksgiving: because lots of people do. And we might be a little embarrassed about it now, or it might strike some as tacky or strange or even a bit pathetic, but it is what it is. Cracker Barrel might be a huge chain restaurant with a loaded past of mediocre food, reported racist and prejudice tendencies, and the type of uniformity associated with much roadside convenience establishments, but it has also come to represent the side of America that much of the population has access to: the affordable side, the cozy-hearth-home side (however drably executed, whether by food or by atmosphere), the middle-class-America side.

Plus, the company knows its audience: Cracker Barrel emailed me today. All locations are open from 6 am – 10 pm on Thanksgiving Day.


[1]  Julie Davis, telephone interview by author, April 8, 2011.

[2] Julie Davis, telephone interview by author, April 8, 2011.

[3]  It was revelatory to me and would be, I predict, revelatory to most people who have stepped inside a Cracker Barrel.

[4] Cracker Barrel, “Meet Larry Singleton.”

[5] I was going out of my way to visit Lebanon.

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“Magic Against Death”: Mississippi's Water Liars

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In the spring of 2012, my life very much in transition, I found myself eagerly anticipating the debut release of Water Liars, a band I knew very little about. I knew of drummer Andrew Bryant—that’s probably what made me take notice. I’d met him briefly at Damien Jurado and Magnolia Electric Co. shows in Memphis, and I’d seen him open for David Bazan at Proud Larry’s in Oxford. A waterliarsbandphotofriend of mine had been Andrew’s freshman comp teacher at Ole Miss, where I was also an instructor, and another friend, the poet Gary Short, had been his creative writing professor—Gary had told me a story about Andrew reading Frank Stanford’s The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, a book I love and struggle with, in one sitting.

From what little of I’d seen of them on YouTube, I knew that Justin (Pete) Kinkel-Schuster played guitar and wrote and sang the songs, while Bryant played drums and sang harmony (he also produced and played other instruments on the record). In the earliest videos I tracked down, Kinkel-Schuster was alone, going under the name Phantom Limb, playing by railroad tracks under a bridge somewhere in St. Louis.

I was drawn to Kinkel-Schuster’s lonesome voice immediately. It was drenched in real tenderness and sadness. It reminded me, in some ways, of other voices I loved, namely Jason Molina (Songs: Ohia, Magnolia Electric Co.) and Willy Vlautin (Richmond Fontaine). Kinkel-Schuster’s voice was different, even more Hank-mournful, but it was that same sound that echoed in my head: a real voice saying something real. And I was drawn to the way Bryant’s voice worked together with his: the deep resonance behind the high lonesomeness. In the first footage featuring both of them, Bryant’s not banging on drums; he’s just sitting beside Kinkel-Schuster, eyes closed, head tilted back under a broad-brimmed Ole Miss cap, smoothing into the sound of the song. What they were doing felt spare and fresh and haunted. I was sold.

*           *          *          *

I was at The End of All Music, Oxford’s record store, to pick up the duo’s first album, Phantom Limb, the day it was released (well, actually about a week after it was released because the first batch that got shipped to the store was damaged in transit). The name Water Liars, of course, is the title of a Barry Hannah story and there was a quote from poet Frank Stanford on the back of the LP sleeve: “Look in my face my name is might have been; / I am also called no more too late farewell.” Their label was Misra, who’d put out early records by bands I loved: Centro-Matic, Destroyer, The Mendoza Line, Shearwater. It kept getting better. Nothing, save for a sticker on the cellophane, said Water Liars—the band seemed to have been renamed after the record was already pressed (a wise choice). At twenty-nine minutes, Phantom Limb should’ve seemed more like an EP, but instead it felt like a punk-swift burst of tightness and economy. Like Hannah’s Ray, it was a slim work where nothing felt rushed or out of place.

Phantom Limb was recorded in a house that Bryant was renting in Pittsboro, about thirty minutes south of Oxford. Kinkel-Schuster and Bryant, who’d met in St. Louis in 2004, hadn’t planned on making an album, but they’d come together to hang out and make photo-10-e1355935738768-610x813music and fell into a rhythm. Bryant, using just a condenser microphone and a computer with Pro Tools, kept things simple, which suited the songs. Kinkel-Schuster talked to me about how Water Liars happened. “We got started mostly by accident,” he said. “Although the more I think about it, it feels in a lot of ways as though it was a thing that was supposed to happen. We were both burnt out and exhausted by the creative and musical stuff we were involved with and the first time we recorded together, which was the first time we’d worked on anything together, we instantly felt this magic electric thing, like it was just easy.”

My first times listening to the record I was struck by how full the sound was and how seamlessly they could move between loud and quiet, fast and slow. Opener “$100” starts with a sludgy kick of guitar and drums, then settles into the kind of melody that seems to be galloping at you across a great distance.

But “Dog Eaten,” the album’s second track, was the one that dug deep into me. Kinkel-Schuster and Bryant cite A.A. Bondy’s When the Devil’s Loose as a big influence on their sound, and I can hear Bondy’s calming presence on this slow-burner. Kinkel-Schuster 21341_largesounds like he’s singing his way out of something, like death is on the line. The heartbreaking edge he has to his voice strikes with an even heavier hammer here. “My father was quietly taking / the money I was making / from the dog-eaten wallet he gave me that year,” he sings. When Bryant joins him on the chorus, it’s bone-melting: “Our blood is our own but it does what it pleases / and there ain’t much more to say / I’m alive on the highway / dead on arrival / and that’s no way to live this life.”

I’ve seen them play this song live at least seven or eight times in the last year and it never fails to drag tears out of me.

On the track “Fresh Hell—It Is Well,” Kinkel-Schuster laments: “Everyone I miss is gone / and everyone I love is leaving, too.” I’m thirty-five now, but I’m still a kid who misses the father who abandoned him, who feels like things are lost before he loses them, who has to keep the emptiness at bay with books and booze and dusty LPs, and this kills me. In less than four minutes, “Fresh Hell—It Is Well” goes through three movements. After the opening minute, a clip of occultist Aleister Crowley reading his poem “The Pentagram” is backed by a whip of noise (Bryant is bowing a violin). Then, near the end, there’s a transition to the hymn “It Is Well with My Soul.” When Kinkel-Schuster told No Depression that he really wanted to “exploit dynamics and opposing sounds and ideas as much as possible while keeping them in a relatively cohesive and familiar framework,” he was talking about moments like this. It’s about being made and unmade at the same time. It’s about balancing between being scared shitless and feeling like everything is holy. It’s an incantation, a spell, a ghost breathing in the room with you.

*          *          *          *

Only a few people had gathered to see Water Liars play an in-store show at The End of All Music a few weeks after the release of Phantom Limb, and it felt good, as it usually does, to be there at the beginning of something. I flipped through records as Kinkel-Schuster and Bryant finished cigarettes outside.

Their equipment was set up in the back of the store, and I was surprised by how little they required. When they came in, Kinkel-Schuster picked up his guitar and Bryant settled in behind the drums and they tore into “$100.” The store held the songs but barely.WLOB You could hear Kinkel-Schuster’s voice spinning through the walls and then out into the sounds of the road and then up, up, up, hovering above it all like light or weather. They covered Hasil Adkins’s “Moon Over Madison” during their set, and made a lonesome song sound even lonesomer.

On a Saturday night in early August 2012, I saw them again at the Blind Pig, a basement bar on the Square in Oxford, with my friend Jimmy Cajoleas. Jimmy introduced me to Kinkel-Schuster and Bryant, who were out front smoking when we got there, and we stood around talking about Barry Hannah and Frank Stanford. When we went in, the bar was dark—“extra divey,” Jimmy recalls—and Kinkel-Schuster gave us High Lifes from their cooler. Jimmy and I sat at a table close to the stage, away from the five or six guys at the bar watching baseball. About ten other people were scattered around. The show hadn’t been publicized and Oxford was summer quiet. Strands of soft red Christmas lights hung on the wall behind the stage; Kinkel-Schuster and Bryant seemed to glow hot in the darkness. They were loud. Kinkel-Schuster’s voice blew through the room like a tree-wrecking storm. Bryant pounded the drums. When they slowed down and played “It Is Well with My Soul,” an old man at the bar took off his hat and bowed his head.

Jimmy and I piled our empties in a pyramid. I took three blurry pictures of Kinkel-Schuster and Bryant because I wanted a record of the show. Remembering that night recently, Jimmy told me: “I kept thinking that it was like Wings of Desire and there had to be angels on stage too, but they were kind of broke-toothed whiskey angels with girlfriends who didn’t wear bras. The place felt holy and dangerous.” We hung around outside with Kinkel-Schuster and Bryant for an hour after they were done playing, until the bartender came upstairs and told them they needed to clear their equipment out.

After another show at Proud Larry’s at the end of that summer, we talked about Willy Vlautin. Jimmy had just read Vlautin’s The Motel Life and Northline, and he was buzzing from it. When we found out Kinkel-Schuster was a big Vlautin fan, we stood out on the patio and rattled off everything we loved about Vlautin, from his novels to his albums with Richmond Fontaine. Kinkel-Schuster told us about opening for Richmond Fontaine back when he was starting out, about Vlautin coming up to him after a show and complimenting him on one of his songs, saying he wished he’d written it. Kinkel-Schuster said, “That’s been enough to keep me going the last ten years.” We talked about The Fitzgerald and Post to Wire being reissued on vinyl and about how we were in love with Allison Johnson from Northline. I was drunk, but this wasn’t the kind of talk that came with getting loose. It was the kind of talk I live for, connecting over books and music.

*          *          *          *

Early in Willy Vlautin’s The Motel Life, the narrator, Frank Flannigan, is looking out his window. He says: “I saw a small black bird trying to fly in the wind all alone.” Cheryl Strayed, in her review of Vlautin’s third novel, Lean on Pete, writes that this was a 3767221492_ae73a6922fsentence that stopped her when she first encountered it because she felt that it was “telling [her] something about what Vlautin has to say as a writer.” She says: “Willy Vlautin writes novels about people all alone in the wind.” Wyoming, the latest Water Liars release, is about people all alone in the wind, too. It’s an honest record, unsentimental and heartbreaking, an intense immersion in experience.

Occasionally I listen to an album for the first time and I think: this matters to me; this changes things. It happened in 1998 with Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It happened in 1999 with Tom Waits’s Mule Variations and Dirty Three’s Whatever You Love You Are. It happened in 2001 with Bonnie Prince Billy’s Ease Down the Road. It happened in 2003 with Song’s Ohia’s Magnolia Electric Co. It happened in 2009 with Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone and David Bazan’s Curse Your Branches. And it happened this year with Wyoming. I felt like I knew the songs before I heard them. I listened to it on long walks around Oxford. I listened at dinner, while I washed dishes, while I ran, while I read, while I tossed back beers in the yard. I knew instantly it was one of those albums that I’d never be able to separate memories from. I’d always remember my son jumping on the couch while “Backbone” played. I’d always remember kissing my wife in our dark little kitchen while “How Will I Call You” rattled the speakers on my suitcase record player. I’d always remember putting “Linens” on a mix I made her.

Wyoming was recorded at Bruce Watson’s studio, Dial Back Sound, in Water Valley, twenty minutes southwest of Oxford. Bryant and his family had recently moved to Water Valley, and he and Kinkel-Schuster decided to book studio time with Watson instead of recording at home again. Watson, who’s also the GM of Fat Possum/Big Legal Mess Records, asked to hear the demos so he could getartworks-000035654824-qph1kj-original an idea of what they’d be doing. He liked the demos so much that he signed them. The sound on Wyoming is cleaner (which takes nothing away from Bryant’s production on Phantom Limb); Kinkel-Schuster’s vocals are closer. The fear is that production like this will make the songs too slick, but Watson and engineer Bronson Tew have a great sense of how to record without slicing the heart out of the songs.

“I thank you for taking all you ever could from me,” Kinkel-Schuster sings on “Wyoming.” “Because you showed me the world is just the things you keep to lose.” His songs are mainly concerned with characters—like the Flannigan Brothers in The Motel Life—who’ve got bad luck strapped to their feet like concrete. He’s also preoccupied with dreams and distance. The narrator of album closer “Fire” recounts a series of dreams. He says: “I had a dream that we were in love / and in your hair you wore one sweet magnolia / but I could not kiss you long enough / and I did not kiss you long enough.” In the end, what feels like a song solely about longing winds up being a meditation on the awfulness of freedom: “The other night the moon was low / and it seemed to tell me which way to go / but I could not follow the way it led / I had to go my own instead.” “Linens” treads similar ground: “Then I woke up on the road / my head was killing / remembering some shit I read in Milton / how the mind is a place unto itself / and then it makes a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven.” Kinkel-Schuster’s characters, it seems, are always servants to their fears.

*          *          *          *

Not long after Wyoming was released, I went to Water Valley to talk to Bryant and Kinkel-Schuster. I got lost in the dark near a Dollar General before finding Bryant’s house on a barely lit side street. Water Valley is a quiet town, one you wouldn’t think much of if you were just passing through, but there’s a renaissance of sorts going on there: the main strip has two art galleries and an old-fashioned grocery store, and Watson’s studio attracts bands from all over. Kinkel-Schuster greeted me at the door with Bryant’s dog fast on his heels. I put the warm twelve-pack of PBR I’d brought in the freezer, and Bryant introduced me to his son, Levi, five yearsmolina_large old, his hair slicked up in a rockabilly swirl.

I noticed a stack of Magnolia Electric Co. records propped up next to the nearby turntable. Jason Molina had died two days before. He’d struggled with booze for years, had been in and out of rehab since disappearing from the music scene in 2009, and his liver had finally quit on him. He died alone in Indianapolis with just a cell phone in his pocket—the only number in the phone belonged to his grandmother. I was hit hard by it. Molina had meant more to me than any other artist over the past decade. His songs were in my blood. His voice filled my head even when I went months without listening to him. Wyoming rescued me. It pulled me out of grieving into the now.

We played a hand of blackjack with Levi and then we talked about Molina for two straight hours. Kinkel-Schuster said: “I can’t think of anyone who has influenced me more. Molina wrote about writing and playing music as real choices with consequences. A lot of people don’t necessarily get to the point where they think about it that way. But it is a real choice and a struggle and he wrote about it in a way that I don’t think anybody else ever did or has. [ . . .]  Because I know that trying to balance making music or art you believe in with trying to live a normal life is not something that’s easy to do. It’s hard to see that if you’re honest about it maybe it doesn’t even matter.”

Kinkel-Schuster snapped open a can of Coke. “The thing to me about his writing and about those records,” he said, “is that he always cares so much about building. He’s building all of these songs and he cares about building them and building them right. That’s all I’m trying to do. I’m trying to build shit right. And that song, ‘Just Be Simple,’ those are words to try to live by and to try to make music by. Just try to always remember to build shit right. Do it as simply and as well as you can.”

The dog jumped up on my lap and then skittered around under the table after Bryant shooed him away. “I named my dog Moon,” Bryant said. “Molina says ‘moon’ probably about two hundred times in his songs. [. . .] He’s obsessed with the moon. It’s such a beautiful word.” He also talked about his plans to get William Schaff’s iconic cover art from the Magnolia Electric Co. LP—a cloud throwing lightning, a crying owl with human hands, and a magnolia—tattooed on his chest.

The conversation shifted to other influences. Frank Stanford came up, as he always seemed to. Kinkel-Schuster had recommended Terry McDonell’s Wyoming: The Lost Poems to me, and I had read it the weekend before and really liked it. Aside from the title, Kinkel-Schuster explained, the McDonell book didn’t factor into the making of the record; instead, it was “just pretty prominent in the galaxy of shit that was spinning around at the time.” He continued: “All of the books that are important to me probably squeeze themselves in to greater or lesser degrees.”stanford

I brought up Vlautin, who features Wyoming prominently in his work. Vlautin’s characters always seem to be heading there. I also brought up Sidney Lumet’s great film Dog Day Afternoon, in which Al Pacino’s Sonny asks John Cazale’s Sal—in the midst of a bank robbery—what country he wants to escape to and Sal says, “Wyoming.” In Barry Gifford’s great novel-in-dialogue Wyoming, there’s not a scene set in Wyoming—it’s just a mother and son talking as they drive around the South and the Midwest. The son talks about wanting to move to Wyoming (a big open somewhere, as he sees it) and have a dog and his mother says, “Everybody needs Wyoming.” Even in Terry McDonell’s poems, it’s more about the promise of Wyoming. I felt like there was mythological Wyoming out there that Kinkel-Schuster and Bryant had keyed into for the record, that it wasn’t just a place name to them. After all, in the title track, Kinkel-Schuster’s narrator isn’t in Wyoming either. It’s a brutal song, one where the narrator concludes that: “I will die in Wyoming / in a drugstore parking lot / so high, I’ll believe that I am parked outside your house two thousand miles away.”

“Wyoming is less of a specific place and more of a strange American place that you want to get to but don’t really ever,” Kinkel-NEA2203Schuster said.

“It’s another one of those beautiful words, too,” Bryant added.

“And it is a beautiful word,” Kinkel-Schuster said. “If I ever have a child, I’ll name her Wyoming.”

Bryant sat up. “Wyoming Moon. That’s a good combination of words.”

Thinking of Jason Molina’s place/moon songs (“Nashville Moon,” “Memphis Moon,” “Blue Chicago Moon”), I said: “Molina should’ve gotten around to writing that one.”

“I’ll do it for him,” Kinkel-Schuster said.

After shutting off the recorder, we listened to Magnolia Electric Co.’s Josephine, just three fans in mourning. Then we drank ice-flecked PBRs from the freezer and talked about Southern pine bark beetles and trees—Bryant works for his father’s small sawmill operation when’s he not touring and recording. But our conversation kept steering back to Molina. We didn’t know how else to wrap our heads around the loss. It meant that maybe nothing would work out, maybe nothing ever worked out.

*          *          *          *

Kinkel-Schuster grew up in Arkansas. He got a guitar for Christmas at thirteen and immediately started trying to write songs. “I superpetehad no idea how to play,” he told me recently. “But it was always my instinct to try to make something of my own by emulating what I had already heard and loved and what spoke to me.” As soon as he was old enough, he started “wearing out cassette tapes.”

Place and placelessness inform Kinkel-Schuster’s work. On Wyoming‘s “Fire,” he sings: “Gone is where I’ll be / in the place that is in-between.” He’s torn between the real world and the mythical world. Places hold promise. Places promise defeat. There’s wisdom to his perception that you can escape a place but can never escape yourself. “I hope that Wyoming gets at some other space, some sort of ultimate or final place,” Kinkel-Schuster said. That seems to be where his head is at now: he’s less concerned with the local and more concerned with the universal (even in its localness).

Further exploring his debt to Jason Molina, Kinkel-Schuster told me: “Molina writes in those big terms in such a way that’s also incredibly specific. That’s the thing that I’m always trying to do. To get at the bigger things by being specific.” And that’s exactly what Kinkel-Schuster is achieving these days. Even the songs that reference specific places are doing it in the service of something bigger, something mythic.

“On the Day,” Phantom Limb‘s closer, shows up as a thirty second sketch on Blood Signs, the final effort from Kinkel-Schuster’s previous band, Theodore, and you can feel him leaning towards the gritty swirl that would soon envelop him. “On the day that I die / I will see everything coming on slow / and the lies that I’ve told will come creeping in,” Kinkel-Schuster sings on the short version. The Phantom Limb version is three minutes of deathbed gospel followed by three minutes of noise, which sounds like the wind being taken out of the world. “I’ll have no more excuses for the way that I’ve treated you,” the narrator says. “On the day that I die / I will sing every song that I know / with the words all the same / but the melodies changed somehow.” “On the Day” is the bridge between Theodore and Water Liars. Kinkel-Schuster’s narrator looks into the future and sees only one truth: We’ll all be filled with regret when we die. And that’s one of the main concerns that possesses him as a songwriter.

*          *          *          *

Bryant was born in Oxford and raised nearby, in Calhoun County, where he lived his whole life until moving with his wife and kidswonderandrew to Water Valley last year. “The first place I lived was called the Shiloh Community, on the Grenada County line, way back off in the woods,” Bryant told me. “There wasn’t even a post office down there, and the closest store was the one where old men stopped to pick up beer and bait on their way to the lake in Grenada. [. . .] My family was very religious, like most in these parts. And I was raised going to church three times a week, regular as clock work. We started in the Shiloh Baptist Church, but then we began attending a Full Gospel Holiness Church in Chickasaw County and we continued there until I was out of school.”

Bryant grew up working. The main industry in Calhoun County is timber. There have been sawmills operating there since the towns began in the late 1800s. “When I was a kid, my father worked for the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company in Bruce, doing maintenance,” Bryant said.

“We lived about thirty miles from there, and he worked the graveyard shift five days a week. He drove a Honda Goldwing motorcycle back and forth to work—rain, hail, and snow—because it was cheap on gas and we couldn’t afford two cars. I can still remember the smell of grease on his clothes and hands when he came home in the morning. My dad did that for over fifteen years, and I guess he couldn’t take it anymore, so he bought his own sawmill. Not a business, just a one man machine that was portable. He wanted to be his own boss and didn’t know what else to do but sawmill work. I was about thirteen when this happened. So my typical day was waking up early, doing chores, studying until noon, then working with my father at the sawmill in the afternoons. I’d be so goddamn worn out I didn’t feel like doing much at night but going to sleep. But I didn’t. I sat up and listened to a lot of music on the radio or some cassette tapes I had—mostly gospel stuff because that’s all I was allowed to have.”

His first time performing music was at church. “We had a full band and I played drums for years, three times a week,” Bryant said. “We practiced before every service, too. I had to be there an hour before for that and my parents drove me every time.” The congregation would start dancing and calling out to the Holy Ghost when he played. In 2012, Bryant told No Depression: “[Even] though my mother would weep if she heard me say this, I fell in love with the power I had to make people feel something playing music.     [. . .] People would start repenting on the spot and lay face down. All the old ladies told me I had the Holy Ghost and wanted me to come by and pet their dogs and eat their chicken. But I knew it wasn’t nothing supernatural about what I was doing. I had them all fooled. And I still do. Because it’s the music that is holy. Nothing else.”

*          *          *          *

At the record release party for Wyoming at Oxford’s Lamar Lounge in March of this year, Water Liars were backed by Jimmy Cajoleas on guitar and Cole Furlow (of Dead Gaze) on bass. Lamar Lounge has a great fireplace and there was a fire going, throwing shadows across the massive bar (once owned by Eddie Fisher) and over the picture of RL Burnside that hangs above the cigarette machine. I settled in with a Guinness and stared at the framed vintage Winchester ad on the wall. It shows a pig-tailed woman looking down surprised at a horse-and-rider brand on her ass.

It was a blistering set. They played all of Wyoming and much of Phantom Limb and did a knockout cover of Chris Bell’s “Better Save Yourself.” Kinkel-Schuster’s lonesome wail morphed into a guttural rasp whenever he needed it to. My friend Gary Sheppard leaned over to me at some point and said, “I love not knowing if I’m at a metal show or a country show.” In the corner, I noticed the sound guy was deep into it.

After the show, I bought a T-shirt from Bryant’s wife, Natalie, at a table in the back—a wolf howling at the moon over the band’s name, white print on black cotton. It reminded me of one of only two other band shirts I own: a simple white-on-black Magnolia Electric Co. shirt that I bought at a show in Philadelphia almost ten years ago, with the band’s name underlined in lightning. T-shirt in hand, I ran into a student from my creative writing class, who had blown off a meeting with me earlier in the day. She was sitting hunched over by the fire. She apologized for skipping the meeting. I said, “What’s important is that you’re here.” I’m pretty sure she thought I was being a dick, but I was dead serious.

Water Liars went on tour after that. They played Chicago with Angel Olsen. They played in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and I called home to press old friends into going. Videos kept popping up on YouTube—they did a VDub Session in Oklahoma City (playing “Linens” as they drove around the streets in the backseat of a VW van); they did a Show-Me Show in St. Louis; they played a Lawrence High School Session in Kansas, in front of a chalkboard and rows of students; Out of Town Films in Philadelphia also shot them playing “Linens” while driving around town; they played at a bathhouse in Hot Springs, Arkansas; and, of course, there were clips from various radio shows and bars and coffee shops. When they got back, they played The World’s Largest Crappie Festival in Water Valley. My wife, son, and I went out and watched them under the railroad pavilion. They played their songs and then covered Hank Williams’s “Lost Highway” and Songs: Ohia’s “Just Be Simple” while dogs and kids ran around in front of the stage. Bryant’s son sat up against a tree to the right of the stage, picking apart a leaf in his lap, singing along.

*          *          *          *

Today, Water Liars are making new songs. I’ve never been in a studio—I’d imagined something like the batshit crazy scenes in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story—but here at Dial Back Sound it is quiet; no one’s demanding an army of didgeridoos. Bryant, jar of Jim Beam in hand, is sitting on the couch next to GR Robinson, who has been playing bass with the band for the last few months. Kinkel-Schuster paces around, slugging from a can of Coke. Tew and Watson are working on the soundboard, adjusting levels, playing back snippets of the track they’re working on.

Dial Back Sound is in Water Valley, an unassuming fenced-in house with blacked-out windows. I notice a folding chair that’s 380961_10151577171304199_2027544488_nchalked with T-Model Ford’s name. Two of Jack White’s old guitars hang on the wall—Bryant points them out to me. An Iggy Pop action figure hovers over a dresser full of recording equipment (Fat Possum has recently released Ready to Die by Iggy & the Stooges). Kinkel-Schuster is taking pictures of the copy of Larry Clark’s Tulsa that’s out on the table.

The track they’re finishing up is called “War Paint.” Kinkel-Schuster sings back from the speakers: “Take my hand / make a fist / knuckles white but the blood drips / because I want to see just how it is / when you play the red but the black wins.” A blast of Wurlitzer, played by Bryant, follows. Kinkel-Schuster used one of White’s guitars on the track, Robinson tells me. The last line of “War Paint”—“While the knives, they will sing / and cut the dead heart out of me”—nods to Frank Stanford’s “The Singing Knives.” It’s a muscular and visceral song. By the end I’m seeing a chest opened up, blood on someone’s hands.

We go for dinner in downtown Water Valley and then come back to the studio. The goal is to finish “Swannanoa,” a song they started earlier in the day. They’ve already recorded the basic track, but after listening to a minute of the earlier version (which I’m floored 367.mu.WaterLiars5by), Kinkel-Schuster says, “I can beat that.”

“Sing it until we all cry,” Tew says.

Kinkel-Schuster goes back into the booth and starts singing.

Two minutes in, Bryant aims a finger at me. “Listen to this,” he says.

Kinkel-Schuster sings: “I looked death in the face / It was only my father / If I’d known all along / I wouldn’t have bothered / with being afraid, with being a coward.”

Bryant shakes his head. “Goddamn. Where does he come up with this shit?”

It’s the kind of thing that Kinkel-Schuster is so good at: the listener feels spoken for. I see myself in a hospital bed. I see death as waterliarssun the father I haven’t known in twenty years.

“I think he’s one of the two or three best songwriters out there,” Watson says. “People will be listening to this after we’re dead.”

“This is Kristofferson,” Bryant says. “Except better.”

Kinkel-Schuster comes back out. He’s beaten his earlier take. He stands back in the corner, swigging Coke, ready for a cigarette.

“This song doesn’t need much,” Watson says. “It’s so personal.”

“Cool,” Kinkel-Schuster says.

“We don’t want it to sound shiny,” Tew says.

“Keep it simple,” Bryant says. “But maybe some piano would work.”

They agree that piano might be nice. They do a little more work on levels and then Bryant goes in and puts down a sweet trickle of piano. Watson tosses around the idea of bringing someone in to play strings, but they decide against it. Too grandiose.water-liars-off-broadway-2

In the end, I hear mixes of three new songs: “Cannibal,” “War Paint,” and “Swannanoa.” The next day they’re working on their cover of Songs: Ohia’s “Just Be Simple” for a Jason Molina tribute, and I’m sorry I have to miss it. It’s a perfect song for them, and their cover is better than any of the other versions I’ve heard since Molina’s death. I drive back to Oxford from Water Valley after midnight and listen to what I’ve picked up of “Swannanoa” on my digital recorder. I go to sleep with the song in my head.

*          *          *          *

Early in Barry Hannah’s “Water Liars,” the unnamed narrator’s year is lit up by the news that his wife was not a virgin when they water liarsmarried over a decade ago. He goes down to Farte Cove with the old liars to make himself feel better. Their lies run the gamut from cheap gossip to ghost stories. Whatever they tell, it’s designed to get them far away from reality. When a man who is new to the group tells a story about hearing ghost noises over the river, “big unhuman sounds” that wind up coming from his daughter and a strange man with a mustache having sex, the old liars reject him for telling the truth. “This ain’t the place!” one of them says. “Tell your kind of story somewhere else.” But the narrator befriends the truth-teller, who “had never recovered from the thing he told about,” and invites him back to his cabin, where they get drunk. The next morning they go out fishing and the narrator determines that he and the man “were kindred.” He says: “We were both crucified by the truth.”

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Kinkel-Schuster and Bryant chose Water Liars as the name of their band only because it sounds nice. Instead, wonder what the story can tell us about them. Here are two young performers who are crucified by the truth. On the Water Liars’ Facebook page, in the “About” section, there’s a quote from Stanford’s The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You: “All of this is magic against death.” This is as good a definition of the band’s mission as any. Watch them weave a protection spell against the strongest darkness. Watch them gather rivers and knives and fires to fight with them. Watch them build a wall against the world at the edge of the world. Watch them.

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Letters to Dad

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I was stuck in Little Rock with no money, a phone with no batteries, no close friends to notice me missing, and no immediate ride. My clothes were dirty – the smell of booze and pit-sweat was spicy. But I had the Little Rock public library: five floors of glass and wood and books and other people with no homes. It’s an old warehouse.

I had three dollars, and the library had a store. That’s where I found this little black notebook for two of my dollars. It was two bucks because it was used, but I didn’t know that yet. I found myself a corner to write some, but before I could use the pen I’d stolen from the nice librarian, who was distracted by some guy asking her if she had any quarters, I found these letters addressed to a lot of folk’s favorite daddy.

I’ve reprinted them in full because they’re worthwhile. They’re innocent, beautiful, hopeful, and lonely. These letters embody that feeling of uncertainty we’re all filled with. It’s something we’re too scared to talk about or haven’t had anyone who’s been willing to talk. This dude found somebody or made somebody up or whatever you want to believe.

More than thirteen years ago this guy was in crisis. I hope he’s okay.

6-23-2000

Dear Dad,

I do not feel very well today. I am mostly worried about my relationship with Lana. On the night of my 21st birthday, two nights ago, she revealed to me that it was only three days before our first kiss on the first night of June that she had broken off (officially) her relationship with Samson, and this is why he and Jesse are stirring up dissension in the Holy Trinity Church. Actually, she had told me the night before that it was ten days. And that was the first I had heard of any of this business.

Well, Dad, she was very upset and crying because she had not told me before. And I myself was shocked by the revelation. Red flags began immediately to spring to my mind. “Rebound!” they warned. Memories of Shay, Celia, and Harriet sprang to my mind. I’m sorry, Dad; I just couldn’t help it. In Your Word, it is written: “Above all else, guard the heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” Will someone from the next set of missionaries come along and enchant her and sweep her off her feet the way I did? Father, I told her early on that the one thing that made me angry was deception, and as long as she did not deceive me, she would never hurt me.

And then she deceived me.

I am not angry with her, Dad – I know it wasn’t, and isn’t, an easy situation for her. But I would be lying if I said that I was not hurt by this.

But Dad, I forgave her. I talked to her on the phone last night, and she said she was fine, but I’m not sure I believe her. And then, for some reason I still don’t know, I asked her if she wanted to continue our relationship. She asked me, “What do you think?” I told her that I hoped so, and she said that she did too. I told her that it would be difficult, and I had her promise me that if she changed her mind, that she would not try to protect my feelings or tell white lies, but rather, tell me immediately. I don’t know why I said it.

Dad, I just ask you to be with Lana and comfort her. Give strength to her young heart. And let her know that I love her. Thank you so much, Dad, for giving me the opportunity to know Lana. She has changed my life. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

6-24-2000

Dear Dad,

Let it never be said that You are not a God who answers prayers! Later yesterday you answered my prayer in full, O God. You presented the opportunity for Lana to tell her dad about us, and she took it, Dad. What’s more, you softened Juan’s heart and brought joy both to Lana and myself, as well as to Jason and Lulu.

Dad, I would very much like for Lana to come and visit me at Christmas, but above all, I know that it is right to seek after Your will and not my own. And so I ask You to tell me, Dad, what is Your will in this situation? God, I pray for guidance.

I also pray, Father, for the UPOA Foundation. It has gotten off to a slow start, but I lay it in Your hands, Dad, and I pray that Your Spirit be with all those who are laboring to make it work.

Father, I give you thanks and praise. I can feel Your hand in my life and I am so glad for that. Thank you for healing Cole. Help him to come to terms with his sin with Paige. Dad, protect my earthly parents and move their hearts, I pray. Help them to understand Your will and to be molded by it.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

6-26-2000

Dear Dad,

Thank You, Dad, for restoring the friendship between Cole and me, at least to a degree. I wish that we had never been at odds with one another. But I prayed to you, Dad and I was trying to do Your will. Heresy is deadly, especially fundamentalist legalism. And I pray both for Susan and for her heretical past, that you might enter their lives and show them the true light of Christian freedom.

Dad, I want to take this time to pray for my earthly parents. Father, my mom neither knows You nor thinks she needs to. She is content with her material life as it is, Dad. I ask You now to move in her heart and bring her closer to You. My earthly father is more curious about You, I think; I pray that you stimulate his heart to personal study of Your Word.

Dad, I pray for the UPAO mission and I pray that You move in the hearts of these students and bring them to You. I have seen the seeds planted, and I communicate with some of my brothers and sisters in the faith who remain.

Dad, You know of my growing feelings for Lana. She is very dear to my heart. But I ask first of all that Your will be done, Dad. This is what we both want. I am trying very hard to return to Peru as soon as possible – if it be Your will, then please, Dad, help me to do it. But if it be not Your will, then may You forbid that it should ever come to pass.

Father, Lana is young, and her heart is tender and sensitive. She has not felt the pain that the so-called love of this world can bring. Dad, you know that to me Lana is like a precious jewel, a star in the dark night. I pray, Dad, that nothing I do ever hurt her at all. This is my prayer to You. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

 Here’s where they cut off. But it’s a good end, it’s an end that stopped my miserable sad-sackedness in the library and made me smile. This guy didn’t have anybody besides dear Lana. His disapproval caused his friendships to suck and his relationship with his parents to suck, but he still wouldn’t stop hoping things would turn out okay. Boy, I do wish I had that sometimes.

The dude’s thirty-four now. I wonder what he’s like. I hope he, Lana, his parents, Samson, Jesse, Susan, Juan and everyone else are planning to sit down to a nice turkey dinner this Thanksgiving. I hope they’ll give each other high-fives and play Twister with their kids. To me, that’s how these letters really end because life shouldn’t be so tough.

cat-playing-twister

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