Blues musician Bill Tatnall sits perched on his front porch, guitar across his lap and clutched in his hands. The sweltering June heat cracks the Georgia air like a bolt of lightning parting the sky. It’s 1935, and Alan Lomax, along with his father John Avery and mother Ruby Terrill, is scouring the great states of the deep south to thread together a musical legacy. Throughout various expeditions, spanning 1934 and roughly 1950, the trio pieced together many collections of poignant photographs, field notes, dust jackets and sound recordings. Their very important work gives apt insight into this country’s history, welding the sorrow of the rhythm and blues together with folk and country music and shedding light on the past, human existence and the utilization of music as self-expression.
By stepping foot on the soil of the South, the Lomax family hoped to understand the true American way of life. “[John] believed that all cultures should be looked at on an even playing field. Not that they’re all alike. But they should be given the same dignity, or they had the same dignity and worth as any other,” daughter Anna Lomax Wood, now the President of the Association for Cultural Equity, once said of her father and legendary folklorist, whose entire findings were finally posted online six years ago, some 17,000 sound recordings, including interviews and live performance music. Those collecting trips, as they’re now called, set the foundation for years of subsequent research and music-making to follow.
Singer and songwriter R. Finn supplies his own reflections of folk tradition, having mounted a makeshift collecting trip for his new record, aptly titled Collecting Trip. Over the span of 10 years, his journey is a bit more intimate, centered on personal heartache, pain, loss and observations of the world. “Life is just a lonely street / So, shake the dust off of your feet, and roam / Go it alone,” he describes on honky-tonk blues ditty “Lonely Heart Blues,” front-porch swingin’ with horns and saloon-style piano crescendos. “Come and go just as you please / Drink of all life’s pleasantries and get stoned / Go it alone.”
Joined with co-producer Jim Keltner, an iconic session drummer known for his work on Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Neil Young records, Finn converted a crumbling industrial factory into the Heritage Recording Co., modeled after ’50s and ’60s spaces, and set to work on his debut LP. “What I enjoyed most about [this album] is to get to continue to be a student of a craft I enjoy so much,” Finn said of the album, which is touched by smokey, trembling nuances from such talented musicians as Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers), Sean and Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek), Reeve Carney and guitarist brother Zane, Madison Cunningham and Anna Nalick. The 10-song record heaves and sighs with the weight of tremendous sadness. “She’ll stick like a disease, then bring you to your knees/ Leave you begging, please, for the hard times again,” Finn sobs into twisting chain rhythms, akin to hard labor of the Industrial Revolution, muggy and thick on the forehead. It’s got the scent of Appalachian music, dressed up with Finn’s rare approach.
“Humanity is my religion / Humanity my faithful friend / I have no border, no rank and order / Still a soldier, til’ the cold and bitter end,” he sings, evangelizing his duty as a human being to a greater cause, with “I am a Solider,” adorned with foot-stomping percussion and flickering piano. “Let Me Be the One” sparkles with plainspoken yearning to be another lover’s object of affection, guitar crying late into the evening mist. “When You Throw Away a Winning Hand” tells the sorrowful tale of “a lover’s great demand,” employing games of chance, fate and love as a deck of cards. “You left me like a stranger in some God forsaken land when you threw away a winning hand,” Finn moans, his anguish a cloud of dust suffocating him. The guitars smolder across the arrangement, twisted and sinister; his pain hangs dastardly in the air. “I’m packing my things / Anyway I can / And I’m gonna through away a winning hand.”
“I wanted to make a truthful record, with serving the musical muse my only compass. At the very least, I did that. I can promise you,” he also explained, unpacking some of the album’s staunch evocative tones, painted with bright brushes and frank honesty. “We get through this life off the kindness and grace of others,” he added.
Collecting Trip weaves in and out of pivotal moments of Finn’s life, from glistening delusions of grandeur with the brawny, bar-stool tune “The Show Must Go On” (“I was too tired to sleep and too lonesome to cry / There’s some things you wish could never end,” he bawls) to witnessing horror and absence of truth on the evening news (“God is on Vacation”) and hunger in America (“You do the best you can and then repeat / Stick to the plan and find something to eat,” he varnishes on “Desperation USA”). His reports are as timely as they are evergreen, stretched between the early roots of this country through the Great Depression and into the new millennium, which promised changed but only wrought displeasure, sickness and more pain. “Still the darkness shines through the day,” he coos.
“A Bird and the Wild Blue Sky” ends the record on a rather promising note. “There was no one there to tell us where to go or what to do / That was a time fair to remember, that was a dream come true,” he muses, dreamily deflecting all the tragedy and suffering for hope and reassurance. His voice is milky, borrowing a gentle vibrato akin to Willie Nelson, raspy but delicate. Collecting Trip is a crude and devastating and imperative sojourn through life’s wreckage, enough to cripple humanity but not potent to completely ruin it. Finn is a superb and skilled storyteller, brandishing his heart for the sake of tremendous art. “Art…wishes to convince us of the eternal joy of existence: only we are to seek this joy not in phenomena, but behind them,” German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote in The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, a 1872 work of dramatic theory, which supposes the examination of tragedy as the gateway to understanding and true bliss.
R. Finn’s Collecting Trip exudes such insightful scripts, both delightful and emotionally overwhelming.
Grade: 3.5 out of 5
Photo Credit: Peter Dawson