Hello from the American West! Well….sort of. My body is back in Austin, but a bit of my heart still remains in Colorado after my much-needed visit to the Rocky Mountain State. While I was there, and contemplating my return to a normal writing schedule after my little stroll through algebra hell in a gasoline bikini, I decided that I was going to write something about the music I had experienced in Colorado over the years. That way, I could rationalize my indulgent trip as business travel, and feel important and productive at the same time.
Longmont was my former chosen place of residence, a city about thirty miles north of Denver, so we set vacation home base there. It isn’t a huge metropolis or anything, but it is a town of about 90,000 people, and it has a thriving art and music community. Every summer, they do a concert series called Rhythm on the River. It’s a nice little festival to take the fam-damily to after a long summer day in the mountains. You get good chow, good brews, and you get to hear some pretty good local music (most of the time). It was a favorite activity of mine during my summers there, so I am sure you can imagine how happy I was that Rhythm on the River was happening the very weekend that I was in town. Yay! So we went.
Aaaaaand….it was lame. Sometimes that happens. When the main stage was featuring a band (the last show of the night, mind you) that was singing “Party Anthem” by LMFAO, and singing it badly, I was concerned that the prospects on the side stages weren’t much better. I was right. I was disappointed, of course, because I had grand visions of hearing something new and fresh that I could write an awesome article about, and come back from vacation a hero. It’s no secret that I suffer from delusions of grandeur; once again I was reminded of my affliction in a soul-crushing way.
After moping about for a few minutes, I realized that things weren’t all that bleak. I was standing there with the majesty of the mountains before me. The sun was just beginning to sink behind them, their silhouettes on the horizon ablaze with the final light of day. The music wasn’t the greatest, but my four-year-old was getting funky to it like it was his destiny. I began to reminisce about the past bands I had seen at the festival, and it was then that I remembered that I had heard a little group called The Indulgers at the same festival, years before.
Formed around Dublin-born vocalist Damien McCarron, The Indulgers have a distinct Celt/Rock sound peppered with hints of country. I have been following them for a while, solidly in love with their sound, but I have to admit that I loved them all the more when they released their album Out In The West. On this album, the country came to the forefront; but this isn’t country in the way you are probably imagining. Remember the rockabilly days, when everyone was debating which song fit into what genre? Yeah, it’s kind of like that.
Like any good country album, this one talks about life, and love, and the American West. But that’s where the similarity ends. This particular story is one of Irish immigrants in the West during the nineteenth century. It’s a new spin on something that I had previously thought was done to death, and it’s compelling. I bought the CD when it came out and sat in my car with the liner notes, reading the lyrics carefully on the first listen through. To this day, it is my favorite Indulgers album.
When I think of Colorado, I think of my modern day life there. But I also think of the history there. The silver mines, the outlaws, the triumphs of some, the tragedies of others. The Old West is often romanticized in our culture here in the States, and even though there are very negative aspects to the westward expansion, there are a lot of stories that are, well, rather romantic. I have seen the old mining towns. I have visited Buffalo Bill’s grave. I have gone to the home of the Unsinkable Molly Brown in Denver. I have been to the museums, and saw the stories of displaced people. It took me a long time to reconcile that history in my mind. A huge part of growing up American is hearing about the pioneers and the outlaws. We all hear about Laura Ingalls or Billy the Kid. But it’s always in the context of American destiny, or American history. While these things are all truly a part of American history, it wasn’t until adulthood that I started researching the family of Laura Ingalls and learned the story of her family before the west was won, or even conceived of, for that matter. We hear about immigrants building Boston and New York. But we rarely hear the western pioneer stories from the point of view of the people that came here and headed directly west from Europe. It’s a refreshing point of view, and the same events are viewed very differently through eyes raised in a different culture.
Out In The West paints that picture perfectly. It is an opportunity to hear a different side of the “American” story, one that hasn’t been told in bits and pieces. It’s not just the subject matter; lyrically, it’s beautiful. The lyrics perfectly capture the realities of the old west. Cheyenne explores the plight of Irish immigrants working on the railway, knowing that their hell will be over at the end of the line in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The video for the song powerfully juxtaposes the sorrowful lyrics with images of luxurious passenger cars, bringing home the point that so many suffered for the luxury of the few. Earth and Blood addresses the hardships the settlers endured, promises of wealth and millions of acres of land that often times were mere propaganda drawing them to parts unknown. It was hard enough to leave home and family back east to start over if you were born and raised on American soil. But traveling halfway across the world to start again? That’s pretty much do or die. For many, there was literally no turning back. Wildfire is a haunting tune about the desperation and fear of life on the lonely frontier. It’s a prayer, an appeal for the strength to carry on, and at the same time an affirmation that no matter how difficult the life chosen may be, it beats life for the poor and downtrodden in the city. It is an ode to the dream of becoming self-made, a landed person. For many of these people, it was a novel idea, and well worth the uncertainty, the hardship, and the danger. From the European perspective, to own land without a title was a big deal; it was the ultimate declaration of success. And the frontier made that a possibility for many, however remote.
My exposure to the idea of immigrants in the west has definitely caused me to reach out to the people I knew in that place, and ask the stories of their families. I was really surprised to discover how many of them had only been in the states since the late nineteenth century; I am from the Appalachian region, so our Irish and Scottish and German family histories often began before America was even a nation. Most of the stories recounted to me in the west were stories from a Norwegian or Swedish or German perspective, from people that had an American family history barely over a century old. I assumed that the majority of families had been here a while and then traveled west, but that was clearly not the case for most that shared their family history with me. I loved it when people opened up to me about it, and I have to credit The Indulgers for sparking my curiosity.
I came home and popped that CD in again. Almost as much as John Denver, that music reminds me of my old home, and I find myself daydreaming about the west as it was. Not about sunbonnets and log cabins, like I did as a child, but about people crossing the ocean, crossing the Appalachians, and the Mississippi, the prairie, and coming to rest in a strange land. I have made that drive; it’s grueling in a car with a GPS. I can only imagine what it must have been like on a steamship, crossing the vast Atlantic, and then in a wagon, exposed to the elements and the wide open spaces of the prairies. Coming home to a lawless, wild land for the first time must have been overwhelming for those who were born here. To those who emigrated here, it must have seemed otherworldly. And they thrived. That is less a testimony to the American spirit, and more to the human spirit. For good or bad, history has some fascinating things to teach us, and it’s nice to see this little piece of the pie being explored artistically. I hope it’s a trend that continues.
In the meantime, I am going to continue to research this topic a little more, and see what I can dig up. And, of course, continue to enjoy the Indulgers’ take on the Irish west. Until we meet again, Slán, y’all!