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Restoring Country to the Everyman: Skagg Philips

One of the most polarising genres of music is Country. The mere mention sends many to groans. It is often cited as the one exception to everyone’s favorite genre being “everything.” This is because Nashville took the music of the everyman and spit-shined it, past the era of the rhinestone cowboy into the pop, girl-chasing, beer drinking, truck driving stereotype that we all think about. This is an unfortunate crisis for those who understand that country isn’t about using tequila to make clothes fall off, or turning ladies on with tractors,or ‘Murica kickin’ ass; it’s about the existential experience of suffering, of musings of life and death, of pain, but also of optimistically gazing into the future, hoping for resolutions. Skagg Philips understands what country music truly is. With a voice that has the melodic mastery of Hank Williams, and a guitar sound so powerful that it can squeeze your heart until tears flow from your eyes, Jordan Batson is the frontman and songwriter. An old buddy of mine, I called to chat with him and celebrate his new album “Problems in Japan.”

11401385_971041099606906_202956106009168492_nSon of a Southern Baptist preacher, Jordan was raised on the sounds of classics like Willie Nelson and Paul Simon, and grew into the angst of the Meatpuppets, before rediscovering his love of the music of his youth. Always curious and seeking answers, he studied Environmental Ethics and philosophy at the University of North Texas. Evidence of these studies are apparent throughout his new album. Jordan’s true lyrical gift is ability to craft several stories in the short space of a few verses, leading to the assimilation of a larger, detailed picture exploring love, spirituality and life and death.

The first track on the album, Fish, is the perfect example of his ability to weave three stories (two about fish) together into a profound commentary on escaping depression or death, by being released by love and creativity. Like the fish that can survive 100 years without water, but comes to life when the liquid saves him; so too can we breakout of our sufferings and live again. At first it seems silly, to be singing about this fish or about a boy he read about in the Enquirer, but the melody is beautiful and Jordan’s voice truly shines as its accentuated by Adrien Wallace’s voice. But soon we realize that there is more to this fish.There is hope in the future. This fish essentially hibernates until water returns the life to it. We may be dead inside now, but that isn’t necessarily forever.

The future is always hopeful, in If I Die Tomorrow, even death doesn’t mean an end to life. The victory in life is to be remembered by someone else. One is not dead, until no one remembers that they once lived. But Jordan points out an interesting phenomenon that happens after death, where your edges naturally get rounded out. Your bad temper, your ill-doings, your misfortunes become less important, and people remember the good. We’re all human and thus we’ve all ered. But forgiveness transcends death’s bony grip, and slowly polishes our memory with fondness.

10590603_10156235096730184_4058309713448023753_nBeing human means dealing with pain and suffering, and sometimes hope only exists in the next generation. A song about the family of a coal miner, Cootchie Woman, tells the story of a man who works so hard, he doesn’t  even have time for temptation by sex or a prostitute. Everyday might be his last as he ventures to what “ain’t the valley of the shadow…Lord, it’s just pure and simple death.” The miner’s mother cries everyday, and his wife does what work she can, so that their son can have a future higher than life in that valley.  

The pain of the miner is almost envious to that of the heartbroken singer of Have Thine Own Way, where we hear the pleas of a man desperate for God to bring the woman who broke his heart back into his life. While Jordan subscribes to no religion, he doesn’t shy away from spiritual musings. The desperation that is felt listening to this poor man bargain with God, strikes our deepest emotions. But even with such painful subject matter, the gospel stylings of his band rings through with the themes of hope and memory which permeated this whole album, all the way through to this last song.

I knew interviewing Jordan formally would be a little tricky, because he is one of the most modest people that I know. A trait worthy of notice and praise, it can make talking about your own work difficult. While his playing is top notch and poignant, he picks his moments to shine instrumentally very carefully. There is only one guitar solo on this album, a gritty dissonant unresolving few measures in Tonight You Ride that simultaneously stabs the heart with a steaming, twisting knife and also somehow makes you beg for that agonizing torture to never end. When asked about his instrumental choices he was very quick to point out his supporting cast, which are all fantastic players. Jordan insists that the true talent of the band is that they make him sound good. And while that is absolutely true, this album glows because of its chief mastermind. Unafraid to ask the tough questions, and always seeking answers, he muses whether Truth is even always the most appropriate language to speak. Sometimes the answers you seek, aren’t the answers you wanted. Ultimately, complaining and stagnation do nothing. Only by working hard, loving others, thinking about the future, taking time to look at the stars, and creating a memory of yourself worth remembering, can life be truly worth living. Yes, it hurts…but it’ll all be okay, no one else will remember that.

 

Jordan is in several other projects, he plays banjo with the AM Ramblers, which also features this album’s drummer, Cory Patrick Coleman, on guitar, and he plays with Friday Mean, Sleepy House (which may be defunct…but I’m hoping for a reunion) and with Bird Meets Winter. All of his projects are worth checking out.

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