Even the most dire circumstance can offer opportunity for new beginnings. Just ask singer/songwriter Blake Christiana or any of the other members of the once Brooklyn based Americana band called Yarn. At least that’s the conclusion they came to after a period of real life challenges that left the band splintered and unsure of their forward trajectory. Internal tensions were simmering. A new album was scrapped. A major move from Brooklyn to North Carolina added to the uncertainty. For a band that seemed forever on the verge of a big breakthrough, the future suddenly seemed cloudy.
“We were dealing with real life issues,” Christiana explains. “Broken relationships, a sense of having to regroup and put some things — and people — behind us. That’s what I was writing about lyrically in the new songs and it became kind of a catharsis. Nothing was contrived. We didn’t have to relate to it in the third person. We were living these circumstances, and that gave us the impetus and inspiration to share our sentiments. Ultimately those setbacks and difficulties led to new opportunities and allowed a little light to shine through.”
Christiana’s referring to the band’s album, the boldly optimistic This Is the Year. A seamless blend of vibrant, inspired, back porch melodies and narrative, descriptive lyrics that detail the challenges faced when one’s life is jolted off its bearings, the record documents in detail the band’s determination to move forward while balancing precariously on a line that forms a border between love and hate. It’s an album about re-evaluating relationships, making tough choices and sometimes skirting the rules, a tack that was inspired by musicians they admire — Waylon and Willie, Merle Haggard and other Texas troubadours with a distinctly renegade reputation.
For Christiana, bassist Rick Bugel, singer guitarist Rod Hohl and drummer Bobby Bonhomme, it meant taking a fresh look at where they were versus what they wanted to accomplish. Bonhomme had recently returned to the fold after an extended absence, while another longtime member was purged. “The tension suddenly dissolved,” Christiana says, giving an audible sigh of relief. “Suddenly we were free to express ourselves without having to look back over our shoulders. This album is our emancipation.”
“I think this album is a stepping stone for us, one we desperately needed,” Bonhomme adds. “It marks a much needed change in direction. The title is appropriate. This is the year, because now we can look forward. This is who we are. For the first time in a very long time we’re not afraid of taking chances. The bond between each of the band members has never been better, and it’s that camaraderie that helped us move forward and created the kind of passion that is evident in this album.”
“This is our best album yet,” Bugel adds. “This is also the happiest the band’s ever been. The chemistry we shared in the studio and on the stage is nothing short of amazing.”
That’s certainly no small accomplishment, especially for a band that spent two years honing their chops during a Monday night residency at the famed Kenny’s Castaway in New York’s Greenwich Village. In effect, it allowed them to rehearse onstage, mostly in front of audiences that often ranged in size from five to fifty people on any given night. Five studio albums followed — Yarn (2007), Empty Pockets (2008), Come On In (2010), Almost Home (2012) and Shine the Light On (2013). The band then took to the road, playing upwards of 170 shows a year and sharing stages with such superstars as Dwight Yoakam, Charlie Daniels, Marty Stuart, Allison Krauss, Leon Russell, Jim Lauderdale and The Lumineers. They performed at any number of prestigious venues — Mountain Stage, Daytrotter, the Orange Peel in Asheville, the Fox Theater in Boulder, the 9:30 Club in D.C, South by Southwest, the Strawberry Festival, Rhythm and Roots, Meadowgrass and more, eventually accumulating a total of 1,000 shows, half a million miles and performances in 32 states. They’ve driven nonstop, made countless radio station appearances, driven broken-down RVs and watched as their van caught fire. They’ve paid their dues and then some, looking forward even as they were forced to glance behind.
Indeed, the accolades piled up quickly along the way. They received a Grammy nomination, garnered nods from the Americana Music Association, placed top five on both Radio and Records and the AMA album charts, garnered airplay on Sirius FM, I Tunes, Pandora, CNN, CMT and Roughstock.com, and also accorded the “Download of the Day” from Rolling Stone. Shine the Light On found shared song writing credits with John Oates (the Oates of Hall & Oates fame), and when audiences expressed their admiration, it brought the band a populist following of diehard devotees, popularly known as “the Yarmy.”
As odd as that might seem, it’s proof positive that Yarn have made their mark, and in their dealing with emotions, scars and circumstances, they find themselves in a position to share those experiences with others who have sifted through similar sentiments.
In an era of click-bait and sound bites, Yarn provides a real experience. They’re not just a live band, they’re a band for people who want to live.
The best storytellers often aren’t the ones who have had the wildest experiences; they’re the ones who have experienced things we all have, and can articulate them in a way we haven’t yet figured out ourselves. They give us a new vocabulary for talking about ourselves and our world. That’s the gift William Matheny presents to us.
Matheny, a West Virginia native and longtime keys player for Athens, Ohio, indie heroes Southeast Engine, has broken out on his own with Strange Constellations, his debut 11-song solo collection out February 24, 2017, which might more than anything provoke the question: Why not sooner?
William Matheny would best be classed as a songwriter’s songwriter--the kind of composer who gets the melody just right every time, and the kind of lyricist whose turns of phrase bring an involuntary grin. Once you’ve heard his deft songcraft, you might feel cheated that he withheld it so long.
Strange Constellations came about while Matheny was still plying the trade of a touring musician, supplying piano and organ for someone else’s grand musical plan. “While I found the job creatively fulfilling and I wholeheartedly believed in the creative vision of the band, at some undefined point, I began to feel as if I had something else to say,” he explains.
So he began to sneak off when he had time, often while bandmates slept during the final year of Southeast Engine’s touring life. It was a challenging enterprise, moving back into writing after years in a primarily supporting role. But songs began to coalesce: songs about touring life, about family history, about coincidence and circumstance.
If you weren’t listening to the lyrics of Matheny’s songs, they’d be plenty appealing already: Jackson Browne pop hooks alternate with alt-country tunes that might call to mind Drive-By Truckers. At times, his delivery recalls a twangy Craig Finn. But then, if you weren’t listening to the lyrics, you’d be doing it wrong.
Take, for example, “God’s Left Hand,” the album’s second track. An upbeat country-rocker, it presents a series of vignettes that in a way illustrate the maxim about life happening while you’re busy making other plans. But instead of missing the minutiae while thinking ahead to the next big thing, Matheny’s character is taking in the little challenges of life while waiting on that lucky break--and thinking about what that lucky break may mean in the larger picture.
It’s in the details where Matheny will make true believers. His songs are full of moments that match smart observation with wordplay that’s impressive mostly in its effortlessness. “There’s some laughing Katherine / down at the end of the bar / with some funny Daniel / down at the end of her arm,” he sings in “Blood Moon Singer.” It’s a scene that could take place anywhere, and does, which is Matheny’s point, as he illustrates the blur of touring life. But no one put it quite that way until William Matheny came along.
Storyteller, songwriter--William Matheny is the kind of artist who garners instant respect from other artists, even as he makes songs so effortlessly catchy. We could resent that he didn’t arrive with this collection sooner, but let’s instead celebrate that he’s here with it now.
-- Andy Mulkerin