Album Tracks/Liner Notes
Diesel Town. I grew up in a railroad town, North Platte, Nebraska. The banging of the cars in the hump yard, the roars of the diesel engines, the whistles wailing at the crossings were a constant presence in my young life lived a few blocks from the Union Pacific mainline. For most, high school then a job with Uncle Pete (the Union Pacific) was the expected path. It could also be a trap that owned your time and life in exchange for a decent living. The railroad was also my first connection with Amarillo, Texas. I was part of the Ground Zero network that tracked the nuke bomb-laden White Trains from Pantex near Amarillo to the submarine base in Bangor, Washington. I was a spotter at O'Fallon's Switch. Knowing where the trains were going let us organize protests along the route. A train can be escape or trap, life or death. It takes a song to encompass these dichotomies.
I wrote Most Promising Officer after many days exploring the backcountry of Palo Duro Canyon and studying its history. Ulysses S. Grant called Colonel Ranald McKenzie "the most promising officer" in the Army. McKenzie whipped the Comanche in Palo Duro Canyon in 1874. Two years later he did the same to the Cheyenne on the Tongue River of Wyoming's Big Horn Mountains. McKenzie fought without the brutality that usually accompanied the genocide against Native Americans. That's scant praise. The obvious contrast was with George Armstrong Custer. Both men faced ignoble ends; McKenzie went mad, and Custer, of course, "...got what he deserved". I think the most important line is the one that follows: "For the rest of us, the judgin's not in".
Bless My Eyes. The song started with seven syllables, like a haiku. Not addressed to anyone or anything. Just a humble request thrown out into the universe. I am partial to a waltz, so that informed a simple structure and melody. I let the words flow, not much concerned about what they meant, but trusting that they would.
It's a short song, two verses and two choruses. I needed a middle bit that really took off. I built the bridge around the 5-2-4-1 chord progression and added a couple acoustic guitars for punch and two mandolins for shimmer. But the sonic texture I wanted wasn't quite there. Enter my pickin' buddies Dan Rankins from Tulsa, OK and Matt Dwyer from Hastings, NE. I set up my recording gear at David Parker's Pickin' Parlor in Canyon, Texas. Dan laid down pedal steel guitar and Matt added dobro, and the song, and especially the bridge, came alive.
El Solitario. Hermit Peak in New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo range is one of my sacred places. This is the story of the hermit monk (Giovanni Maria de Agostini) who gave the mountain its name, told in the voice of a teamster who knows the same regret and need for penance as the padre.
1931. Each verse is a story Mom told me about her life. She was the 11th of 12 children, growing up in poverty on the High Plains of southwest Nebraska during the dusty days of the Great Depression. The one thing they had in abundance was love, which flowed from her sainted mother, Anna Clara, the fourth daughter of Swedish immigrants. At the end she says to her daughter "Jag älskar dig", I love you in Swedish.
The Lesson. I call it the Toolbox Theory of love. Each of us is given an emotional toolbox that we use to build a personal version of received and expressed love. Some toolboxes hold only rudimentary hand tools, others are crammed with the finest electric power gadgets. Dad had a limited set of tools, like maybe only a screwdriver and a hunk of baling wire. But, he did the best he could with what he had. It was only late in his life that I picked up a hint about where his emotional tools came from.
It's The Breath. Mick McLaughlin was my music partner, compañero of the long nights, and inspiration as a wildly creative, deeply talented and all-in dedicated musician. He died in 1998, leaving a silent rupture in the creative universe. He also left a box of tapes filled with hours of music, some finished, others works in progress. Opening that box and listening and cataloguing Mick's music knocked loose so many emotions - sadness, elation, nostalgia, gratitude, intense missing. I came to understand that music only dies when it no longer pushes air, that like any living thing, a song needs to breathe. Otherwise, it's as good as dead. So, I perform a couple of Mick's songs at every gig, to keep them alive. I wrote this song as an expression of that aspiration, imagining Mick still opening my eyes to what a song is about. Nate Todd helped me out on organ and lap steel guitar.
Two Step The Night Away. I asked her if she wanted to take country western dance lessons. She didn't want to, but she did anyway. I wrote this song for our wedding. We've been dancing together ever since.
Deepening Of The Stillness. The song takes place during the moments before the main character dies on a battlefield. It could be any war, anywhere. Because the soldier's experience is condensed into just a moment, I wrote the song all in the present tense. The soldier's doubts and regrets rise up, but in the end "I close my eyes and think about you".
Comayagua Cabaret. Song ideas can come from anywhere. The seed of this one was planted after I read an article about the negative impact of the American military on the people of Honduras. The U.S. government supported a cast of nefarious characters in 1980s Central America, facilitated by an air force base in Palmarola, Honduras. I was deeply moved when I read Maria's story and turned it into a song that contrasted her humanity with the unfeeling geopolitical shenanigans of the powerful. This song was the soft, sad closer of The Skyotes dark, raucous, rocking album Fax The Pax.
All Purpose Survival Cracker. I've spent my entire life under the Damoclesian sword of nuclear annihilation. Atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945. On May 12, 1951, the U.S. detonated the first hydrogen bomb. I was born two and a half years later. I remember the hushed conversations of adults during the October, 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Someone thought it would be a good idea a couple years later to have my Cub Scout pack distribute civil defense advice on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. There I was, in my cub scout uniform, going door to door handing out pamphlets that showed you how to stack magazines and newspapers on a propped up door.
On a bigger scale, the government made plans to feed the surviving population with the "all purpose survival cracker" made with a parched wheat called bulgur. More than 20 billion of the biscuits were baked and distributed to fallout shelters around the country by 1964. The Dr. Strangeloves in the government even factored in how much meat the country's pet population could contribute to the lucky survivors of nuclear holocaust. This song screamed at me to be written, and I had the riff and the lyrics in one session. We live in strange and deadly times, and sometimes they demand an absurd response to the absurdity that daily bombards us.
Cinnamon Girl. Another classic Neil Young song, so fun to play. And, Neil's best one note guitar ride ever, right?
Neil Young's classic song Powderfinger is one of my favorites. I love the crashing power chords, the classic Neil Young guitar solos, and the double guitar riff that ends every verse.The song's story always spoke to me as an anti-war cautionary tale. A naive young man is confronted with a violent situation, possibly during the Civil War. He gets killed (probably) in what is really a senseless act of violence. But his upbringing or culture would only allow him to react in one way - he didn’t really have a choice.
I had Powderfinger in mind when I wrote Deepening Of The Stillness. In it, a young man lies on a field of battle moments before he dies. Memories flood his lingering consciousness, appearing to him in the present. And like Neil Young's character, his last thought is of his beloved..."Do I show you how much I love you?/Do I tell you the words written in my heart?"
Copperhead Road. One of my favorite Steve Earle songs to cover. It doesn't quite sound right when I do it solo with only mandolin, but this recording let me build the song like it was meant to be played. When we did it live back in the day, Mick played mandolin and I handled the electric guitar part.