Brent Bennett's Americana: Populist and Poignant
Brent Bennett’s latest CD, American Stories, continues that musical departure he took on his last CD, A Ghost in Indiana: acoustic guitar-dominant country-folk and blues rather than, as with his previous CDs, electric guitar-based music. Collaborating with Randy “Ranch” Wuertz, who plays electric guitar-style and stand-up basses throughout and does harmony vocals on some tracks, Bennett has taken a bare-bones musical approach and filled it out with his usual excellent original song lyrics and expressive vocals that teach old popular music thematic dogs new tricks—giving American Stories a decidedly folk ambience. Yet, there’s decidedly nothing that feels dated about American Stories, for the music is ever fresh; another demonstration, as Brent Bennett has consistently done with “older” musical approaches that have stood the test of time, that one doesn’t have to incorporate the latest techno-pop gimmicks, or what has been trendy in song lyrics and themes for the past thirty days (or even three!), to produce timely music. Good always speaks for itself, be it recent or venerable.
But American Stories is timely in another way as well, and especially timely for our troubled times here in the Heartland. That is because it is so vitally populist, and speaks not only to life and love generally, but to life and love in this time of economic woes specifically. Brent Bennett uses his ample songwriting talent and vocal skills to bring the recession home, to expose our pain and frustration, our fear, but also our hope; not in a preachy way, and certainly not in a disinterested way, but in a deeply empathetic, caring way. That is also the Americana of American Stories, and it is exactly to the credit of Brent Bennett and Randy “Ranch” Wuertz that they don’t sidestep it, but face it squarely. Bennett and Wuertz write perspicaciously in the accompanying notes (I quote at length, because it’s all so eloquent and necessary):
In the not so distant past, everybody’s parents were married forever; owned their own home; drove at least a couple of nice automobiles; enjoyed the benefits of life, health, and unemployment insurance; and came straight home from their eight-hour manufacturing job to check in on the progress of homework, or maybe pick us up from sports practice; maybe then return to our quiet little subdivisions and neighborhoods for a home-cooked meal, a quick synopsis of the collective experiences of the day, and then into the family rooms of this great country to check in with Walter Cronkite and his peers to get the absolute non-biased truth about what went on in the world today. That was the America of just a few years ago. That America had some great stories.
Today, houses that once held these families stand boarded up and foreclosed upon. Subdivisions and neighborhoods have become places where the neighbors barely know one another, if at all, because no one seems to stay long anymore. Those career blue-collar jobs have packed up and gone off to other parts of the world in the interest of “more optimum profit margins,” and the divorce rate is astronomical. Today, the delivery of the “news” is suspect at best; after all, corporate sponsors don’t grow on trees. Today, our political leaders talk trash like their lives depend on it, and rhetoric is the dish of the day on the left, the right, and way out on the fringes. That is America today. Do not despair, friends: This America has some great stories too.
American Stories emphasizes the point further on the CD tray, where lyrics from one of the songs on the CD are aptly quoted:
What Is Mine
Streams are dying on the outskirts of town/They’re closing our last factory down
Now a small town once filled with prosperity and pride/Breathes a final, fatal sigh
Dreams are dying in a barren field/Hard ground and the dirt won’t yield
A thousand acres once filled those silos high/Watch the future wave goodbye
No one working on the assembly line/Lawns are littered with foreclosure signs
Everything is gonna pass with time/How can I hold on to what is mine
Dreams are dying in some mountain town/Nobody’s working since the mine shut down
A small place made sure the cities burned bright/With no direction, no sense of right
And yes, and contrary to what the corporate media would have us believe, economic populism, and those psychological feelings of frustration, fear and despair borne of economic hard times, are indeed American stories, very much so; and with a greater aura of reality and real people
than all those media spin tales of celebrities’ unreal lives. That’s what Brent Bennett knows, and specifically tells, in a variety of songs here on American Stories: in affirmations on tracks 1 and 2, “I Will Be There” and “Tell You Love Me Again;” in direct economic limning on the song quoted from above, track 6’s “What Is Mine;” pledging fealty to one’s love even should it all fall through and the couple ends up living in the “Cardboard Box” of track 7; “Elkhart,” track 14, where this once-prosperous Indiana Rust Belt small city lends its name to a highly personal vignette of an individual living in the hell of what his world has become, and hopes and prays only to go on for another day and perhaps make it to heaven; and the urban folklore fantasy expressed in a bluesy way on track 15’s “Lottery,” the fulfillment of that wish against all odds that someone we love will by chance win the lottery, and all those troubles and cares will suddenly vanish. These are those specifically populist American stories that Brent Bennett tells on this CD, six of the twenty stories told here in vivid musical artistry and deep psychological understanding.
As the reader surely has noticed, some of these populist songs above are specifically cast as love songs, songs that center round the romantic relations of men and women. That’s integral to pop music of all genres, not just country and folk, but also rock, jazz and blues. But, as B.B. King so well noted of it in terms of the blues: “Blues seems to talk about men and women. But if you listen, really listen, you know it’s about a lot more.” (Emphasis in original.) The same holds true for the song tales Brent Bennett tells on American Stories.
The headlines of the day also affirm the vitality of American Stories’ populist message, as though the CD were but the soundtrack of the dramas of arrogance, resistance and rage played out in Wisconsin and Indiana, where the real populism of the laboring people confronted the phony “speaking for the people” of Republicans taking cues from the Tea Party, Governors Scott Walker and Mitch Daniels respectively. (Of course, the “populist” image of the Tea Party is another one of those media spin concoctions; in reality, the Tea Party, in all its little grouplets, splinters and ambitious spokespersons, is actually an Astroturf “populist” ersatz bought and paid for by the Koch Brothers and other corporate money moguls.)
But there are twenty stories in nineteen regular tracks and one bonus track on American Stories, and we’ve only talked of six of them so far. Those other fourteen are all as vivid, timely and insightful as the six limned above, and they run a gamut of themes and expressions. Since musically American Stories is mostly country-folk, it’s only appropriate that this be a story-telling CD above all; “Listen to those stories, man,” as jazz great Charlie Parker put it, was what drew Parker, along with soul great Ray Charles, to embrace those country songs that their peers disdained as unsophisticated. Yet, Parker and Charles both knew deep down what not only Hank Williams, but also later country singer/songwriters such as Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and David Alan Coe (naming but a few), were really doing: telling stories, giving us vivid fables of life and meaning same as Aesop had done centuries ago. In seeming contrast to country music’s story-telling is the musical mood-painting of the blues—but they’re really complements, and Brent Bennett knows and shows this on the bluesy tracks he’s put forth here: “Lottery” mentioned above, but also track 3’s “Mean Streak;” track 4’s instrumental, “Dirt;” track 12’s “Ain’t Got Nothin’;” and the instrumental on track 18, “Hemphill Run.” That Brent Bennett can sing the blues with the same conviction and authenticity he brings to country and country-rock has been amply shown on his earlier CDs, most specifically on It Must Be the Blues, and is well known to all who’ve followed his music—he is surely among the very, very last of those musicians who could ever be described as one-dimensional.
But it’s not just the predominant country and blues that characterize American Stories, it’s also the variety, the mixture of genres, that’s integral to this CD, and to Bennett’s music. As found in the Bluegrass instrumental featuring guitar and mandolin (Bennett is multi-instrumental), “Expresso Express,” and the old-fashioned bouncy rag of another instrumental, “Midway.” It’s also found in the catchy soft rock of “Better Luck,” and of course, in all the stories, affirmations and poignancies that fill American Stories; stories we can’t possibly all cover here, so the reader will just have to buy the CD to really get the full scoop. But it’s appropriate to end by mentioning “Fallen Angels,” track 8, a “help me make it through the night” celebration of whores, strippers and one-night stands that help the lonely get through. The rueful self-examination and self-criticism that infuses track 10’s “I Don’t Stand a Chance” and track 17’s “Drifter’s Journey.” The vividly-portrayed ambivalence and conflicting feelings engendered by divorce, track 19’s “Half of Me.” (On which I’d like to proffer an idea Bennett should consider embracing—re-do this song as an electric country number, and you just might have a commercial hit!) And in the bonus track’s affirmation of the Indiana land, the Indiana farms, and the memories of Indiana rural boyhood, “Shine Down on Indiana.”
Several of the tracks have drums and drum machine programming featured, along with other percussion: tambourine on “Tell You Love Me Again” and hand claps on “Dirt.” An organ break is featured on “Elkhart,” and the soft rocker “Better Luck” incorporates both electric and acoustic instrumentation. Randy “Ranch” Wuertz provides bottom with electric guitar-style and stand-up basses, and makes his bass resonate as a cello on “Elkhart.” In addition, he joins Bennett with supporting harmony vocals, his high tenor, almost falsetto at times, bringing to American Stories another musical enhancement. There’s visual enhancement here as well in the extensive multi-colored and stark black-and-white artwork specially created for the CD by Brent Bennett and his wife Cyndi.
American Stories stands out as among the best, certainly, of original adaptations of American roots music, and Bennett’s songwriting and vocals, with Wuertz’s apt accompaniment, affirm our own roots and our own stories, make Bennett’s an affirmation of our own—for we are part of the stories told here, and “only the names have been changed.” Brent Bennett hears us, makes our voice his own, and then recapitulates it in a way we can all feel and understand. For this is truly Americana, these are all our American stories as much as they are Brent Bennett’s, and they are all told well and appropriately on this highly creative CD.