Where to start with country music weirdos Souled American? The end
There are cult bands and then there's Souled American. In 1988, the Illinois group arguably invented "alternative country" with the album Fe. While the alt-country sound is widely recognized as Southern roots rock with an indie-punk sensibility — largely defined by Uncle Tupelo's No Depression released two years later — Souled American's early music feels as if it was formed in a vacuum, inspired by the time-stretching space of reggae. But over the course of the following decade, Souled American's music grew increasingly slow, insular and esoteric. Although Fe, Flubber and Around the Horn are inarguably more accessible, upbeat and even sometimes fun, if you've never heard this music before, it actually makes sense to start at the end.
Since the release of Notes Campfire in 1996, it's almost as if Souled American never existed: The band's albums have long been out of print, there have only been a handful of performances in the last 27 years (including the tiny towns of Laporte, Colo., and Centennial, Wyo.), there are no known live videos, and a long-running Facebook group of ardent fans boasts less than 100 members. Not for nothing, diehards have attempted to resurrect interest: In 1997, Camden Joy created the "Fifty Posters About Souled American" project (he ended up making 61); in 1999, tUMULt reissued Souled American's first four albums on CD; in 2006, The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle penned an essay about how Souled American's Flubber changed his life. Now, thanks to the efforts of longtime fan Tom Adelman (aka writer Camden Joy), the band's full discography is available digitally for the first time ever via Bandcamp.
Driven by guitarist Chris Grigoroff's plaintive guitar strumming and Joe Adducci's skillful but idiosyncratic bass playing (consistently described as sounding "underwater") — not to mention the duo's nearly identical voices — Notes Campfire and its companion Frozen are atmospheric, languid and strange evocations of country living.
It's a wonder that these songs work at all. The music is slow and loose with little regard for a consistent beat; the lyrics are poetic and frequently profound, but often cryptic and stunted. What ties it all together is the sound: Guitars twinkle and Adducci's bass slides and glides in and out of chord progressions in support of drawling, yearning and ultimately shockingly powerful voices. The eight-minute "Flat" burbles and gurgles along, always moving forward but going nowhere, evoking the landscape and feeling of their home in southern Illinois. Album highlight "Born(free)" spends most of the song repeating one line: "There's no love at all." On "Deal," Grigoroff sounds so beaten down ("The weight on me / I'm so weary") that he can't even sing in complete sentences. It's here that the band strays from Hank Williams; Souled American's narrators aren't so lonesome they could cry, they are loneliness itself.
From the very beginning, the band members seemed to have the foresight that they would shrink and turn in on themselves. When Jamey Barnard left after the third album Around the Horn, Souled American simply continued as a trio with no drummer. Same with guitarist Scott Tuma — who, as a solo artist, has a sizable discography of folk-infused atmospheric music — when he split in 1996, Souled American became a duo. Reportedly, Grigoroff and Adducci have been working diligently on the follow up to Notes Campfire ever since. In a 2009 post to the Facebook fan group, Adducci's wife gave hope to its tiny but rabidly obsessed fan base: "They are working on it."
Like country music classics before, Notes Campfire is preoccupied with loneliness, longing and loss, but also shares a title with the perky opening track of Souled American's debut album that begins, "I heard about your love, so you're alone today." Notes Campfire gives the impression that we've arrived back at the beginning and also reached the end. Where does the band go if they've turned inside out? What comes after when nothing is left? We've been waiting more than a quarter century to find out.
Sarah Hennies is a composer based in upstate New York. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Music at Bard College.
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