The reason that the Country Way of Life Twitter account has been locked and archived (with thanks for following!) is because country music criticism has ceased to be about music. There are Brantley Gilbert and Jason Aldean fanatics who would subscribe to their version of the ‘Never Kissed A Tory’ credo held by many left-leaning Britons. Politics has seized every aspect of American culture and that includes country music.
Rather cutely The Telegraph, the paper Tories kiss every morning, calls Jake Blount’s new album The New Faith ‘spiritually moving’ and ‘revelatory’, which rather suggests they are judging it on the music, as shall I. The above is a context of why music discussion should be about music, but nobody gets a like for saying ‘this is good on its own terms’.
Nashville became popular for music publishers because it printed Bibles too. It is no surprise that there has been a rush of folk from New York and Los Angeles to Nashville because follow the money remains law. With the businessmen come journalists who hold power to account: Marcus K Dowling, Charles L Hughes (an academic who wrote a book about a rapper with dwarfism, a condition from which he too suffers), Andrea Williams and Marissa Moss have all made a career out of reporting the modern conditions of Nashville.
To be clear, country music needs to adapt or die, especially after freezing out women from radio, a dying medium. The passion these critics feel for a wider array of voices is endearing but sometimes their anger becomes political and less about the music than about skin pigmentation or items of sexual equipment.
Jake Blount is a musician who intersects (buzz word!!) music and academia. Born in Washington DC as the son of TV anchors, his heritage comes from both Sweden and the African diaspora. Jake studied folk music much like Rhiannon Giddens, who is doing astonishing work correcting the biased history of folk and bluegrass in America and for whom Jake opened.
This second album The New Faith comes out on Smithsonian Folkways, the Blue Note or Deutsche Grammophon of folk music. Its creator was on the cover of Country Music People magazine to promote it. He has also been supported by Apple Music, NPR and Rolling Stone, the last of these giving him space (buzz word number two!!) to write an essay about how climate change is affecting live music.
‘I am a homosexual,’ he writes in the very first paragraph before going on to criticise streaming royalties and ‘the music industry’s climatological malfeasance’ that makes Jake and his fellow folkies ‘complicit’ in destroying nature and ‘systemic discrimination’ (buzz word bingo) against those who live in hotter countries which include ‘women, people of color and people with low incomes’.
Naturally, he thinks ‘regulating the current music industry out of existence’ is the way to go, promoting the folk ideal of community and art over profit, which is brave to write in Rolling Stone, which became a brand in defiance of its counter-cultural nature.
That’s 500 words before I even press play on the album. I know Jake from his Twitter account @forked_queer where I am advised to use the he/they pronoun. In response to news that two big publishers couldn’t merge, Jake wrote ‘break up the major labels’. He commented on the passing of gay performer Patrick Haggerty, who was ‘a relative of my family through marriage’, and told people to attack Saturday Night Live for giving ‘the famously bigoted and problematic’ Dave Chappelle 15 minutes to talk about Jewish prejudice. He also wanted to know if other folk were leaving Twitter and changed his handle to ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’.
It’s not new to mix country music and politics – Loretta Lynn, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith and on and on – but it’s now part of the appeal. An album by a performer who is both black and queer must be heard in that context, especially a folk artist in the long line of performers keeping songs alive and writing new twists on old tropes.
Jake’s voice reminds me of that of David Byrne, another man who sometimes looks to folk music for inspiration. The Downward Road, on which Jake tells the role of a bard asking his audience to ‘gather round’, is ‘crowded’. Both that track and the following one, the trad. arr. Didn’t It Rain, are accompanied by handclap percussion.
Take Me To The Water (‘to be baptised’) is sung a cappella over a babbling brook before a spoken prayer (‘we gather here to reject the greed of our forefathers’). There is another spoken-word parable moving the listener to the coast, as storms, lynchings and fever take the lives of ‘refugees’ heading north. ‘Only three of the original 30 remained’ is the last sentence of the parable, which falls into the traditional song Death Have Mercy, which features a rap from Demeanor. He also pops up on Give Up The World, where he seems to rhyme ‘Fibonacci/ malarkey’. Modern and ancient folk tales interweave magnificently.
The track Psalms continues the narrative: ‘spare me, O Death’ is the first prayer that influences those settlers. It’s a muddled poem where voices overlap with each other and Jake challenges the listener to do good and right. ‘Trouble not with worldly possessions!’ he orders, in the sort of tone that his news-reading parents would use.
Tangle Eye Blues was a track transcribed by Alan Lomax, which Jake arranges with double-stopped fiddle drone and vocalised oohs, with the vocals (‘daddy please don’t go’) particularly poignant across the decades. City Called Heaven has bluesy guitar and a sampled sound of what might be white noise anchoring a story of a poor wayfarer, while They Are Waiting For Me is a gospel tune transferred to a chirpy major-key acoustic guitar part. Just As Well Get Ready, You Got To Die is self-explanatory; the string section and close harmony singing elevate the song.
This arresting yet tough album finishes with Once There Was No Sun, which pulls the lyrical and musical strands together. I’ll certainly follow Jake’s career which, like Rhiannon Giddens, may involve as much documentary as performance. For a start, he should be booked at Black Deer and The Long Road in 2023 to preach his gospel to UK crowds.