In series of 5 posts John Davis reviews Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue’s new album Lost and Found. This first post summarises the different characters that emerge across the album; discusses the evolution of Gal Holiday and The Honky Tonk Revue; indicates some of the types of listeners the album will appeal to; explains the context of its hiraeth theme; analyses its Ameripolitan identity; and highlights its sensitivity towards issue of loss, relationships strife and wishful thinking;
A Complex Tale of Lost and Found:
Having shared the stage with the likes of Willie Nelson, Wanda Jackson and Dale Watson and been, dubbed ‘Louisiana Honky-Tonk Legends’ by Harry Kaplan of the TwanGrila blog, this New Orlean’s act now play a central role in the alternative country, ‘roots’ music, Ameripolitan scene.
The band’s leader and ‘galvaniseur’ Gal Holiday aka Vanessa Niemann has matured into a formidable performer. Having been nominated for an Ameripolitan Award in the category of Honky Tonk Female in 2017, Niemann is now, very appropriately, billed as The Queen of NOLA Country.
Niemann’s personal and soul seizing music stands as a fine example of the Ameripolitan music genre, which Dale Watson explains as focussing on the ‘I’ more than the ‘we’:
When pressed to differentiate Ameripolitan and Americana as alternatives to country music, Watson provides an astute argument. Calling Americana the “only viable genre that gives roots music a home”, he is quick to note, “it’s too broad”. Narrowing it down, in Watson’s estimation, “Ameripolitan starts with Jimmie Rogers; Americana starts with Woody Guthrie.” The former being personal, the latter owing more to activism, Watson cites the change from the “I” of Rogers, Hank Williams and Merle Haggard to the “We” of Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Steve Earle. Both are what Watson terms “a natural progression of the roots of the tree” that began with country music.
Ameripolitan music locates us imprisoned in the jail houses of our minds. And, Lost and Found certainly grabs you in that personal way. Each song focusses on a character or characters in a specific setting; their predicaments woven together with golden threaded themes that enable the albums whole to become greater than each individual track’s parts. Full of gravitas, love, pathos, pain and wisdom, Lost and Found is an outstanding album that combines warm and humorous story telling with songs that evoke tears, longing, wistfulness and yearning.
Niemann’s new album achieves an intelligent and lovely balance between punchy, punky alt-country and graceful, spiritual, dream-a-billy. Songs like Let’s Run Away, The Bottle and the Booze, Ain’t Gonny Buy My Ring and Treat You Better cover themes such as illicit carnality, errant partners, regretful encounters and sinful conspiracy.
Dream-a-billy is defined by Alexandra Scot as a type of country/folk that turns out slow, simple dance songs for the long lonely nights to come. Niemann’s slower songs get under your skin, yet, she also uses them to lift your heart. For example Loose Diamonds and Someone like You speak of the consequences of hurtful behaviour, confused escapism and relationships gone wrong; but also encourage you not to throw your love away and to search out those that will heal your broken heart.
Regular readers of this blog will be aware of our support for Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue. We first reviewed the band at the end of June 2015 when we discussed their sensitivity, connection with the audience and generosity of spirit that had come across at their excellent show in Edinburgh.
Gal Holiday’s sensitivity continues in the new album in songs like Come Home, In My Dreams Again and Found Myself Instead which paint a picture of bereavement, inter-generational love, isolation and self-discovery.
The underlying theme of the album is drawn from the Welsh word hiraeth:
‘A homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was, the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost place of your past.’
And, Lost and Found is a journey through hiraethville, fleetingly revealing the different places, stories and stages of Gal Holiday’s eventful life world.
The album’s 12 tunes depict a range of complex identities including starlit longing runaway; soul running blue bird; cologne breathing dreamer; tear smiling lover; fiancé scolding grafter; loose-diamond loving pearl thrower; desert stumbling discoer, patriarchy rejecting heartacher; self-discovering wanderer, sleeplessly wired fantasy chaser, regretfully apologising sign seeker; and wayward floating air-walker.
The album will connect with Female listeners who reject stand-by-your-man ideas and the false promises of men who let you down. It will also connect with male listeners who value relationships that involve a partnership of equals. The album’s stories pose questions about Gal’s own personal journey; evoke images of aspirations unfulfilled; celebrate Gal’s own ways of being; paint a picture of a complex woman who works hard in her relationships; and attest to Gal’s ability to stand on her own two feet, particularly when rising above the sorrows that life throws at her.
Vanessa Niemann’s artistry lies in her poetic ability to convey complex stories without offering simplistic solutions. Within this album, Niemann’s music becomes an art form that surpasses the daily grind; that lifts us to imagined new horizons; that questions marital strife; that values intergenerational bonds; and, that expresses our personal feelings of hurt, rejection, and regret.
Niemann’s approach is fresh and innovative. She avoids tired stereo-types, over-sentimentality and images that place women in passive roles. Opting, instead, to depict womanhood with all its flaws and guises and to place you in specific situations that invite you to release your emotions, reflect on your own life’s journey and empathetically engage with the central characters.
The theme of hiraeth is expertly entwined throughout the album and beautifully conveyed in the final song; Wayward Winds, which wistfully whisks our heroin away from the confines of predictability; in search of something untold.
We first mentioned the word hiraeth in this blog in December 2015 after the definition was posted on the Gal Holiday facebook page. The hiraethly tone of the songs will be meaningful to Celtic audiences who find a need to assert our sense of being in an anglicised world that, so often, denies our identities, histories and injuries. Weather it is the lands described by the ancient poets, the clearances, the potato famine, folk taken away for empire building or the collapse of traditional and ‘valley’ industries; Celts know what it means to engage with music that echoes of worlds that were changed utterly and, thereafter, yearned for.
Hireath is a word made for a social justice audience that understands that our present day hurts, injustices and slights are often connected with our past experiences. It is fitting, given the history of Celtic migration to the USA, that we should re-learn the word hiraeth from Gal Holiday.
Indeed, Lost and Found demonstrates the ability to teach life lessons across continents and, specifically, Wayward Winds, has a Celtic lilt to it that enables Gal Holiday to connect with her followers across the forests, the mountains, the rivers and the oceans; twanging at your heart strings as she goes.
Lost and Found was produced by Jimbo Mathus of Squirrel Nut Zipper fame. In March 2018, Mathus released a new album The Beast of Burgundy featuring Vanessa Niemann on the song; ‘Fade’. The lyrics of Fade: ‘Just as the sun is setting, you are like a dream that’s fading away, away…’ beautifully compliment the hiraethly spirit of Lost and Found.
Squirrel Nut Zipper sold over 300 million albums between 1995 and 2000 and you can feel the experience of Mathus when comparing Lost and Found to previous Gal Holiday albums. This album is a notch up on the band’s previous outputs and the thoughtful way it has been put together means that it has a serious possibility of breaking through beyond the alt-country genre.
The track entitled Treat You Better, specifically, feels like it was influenced by the music of Fats Domino and Lost and Found produces a tone that warmly compliments the hiraeth inspired album themes, by blending the grace of a Louisiana sound to Celtic, Rock-a-Billy, Honky-Tonk, Outlaw, Western Swing and Twangy influences. The outcome is an airily spirit lifting combination of tunes and lyrics; a beautifully layered, empathetic and soulful production.
This album stands as an emblem of Vanessa Niemann’s ability, in good times and sad, to re-invent herself, progress her Gal Holiday creation and to evolve a variety of versions of the Revue. The current line-up includes drummer Rose Cangelosi, upright bassist Corey McGillivary and guitarists Matt Slusher and Justin LeCuyer. The addition of Rose and Corey, two beautiful singers in their own right, has added new harmonies to the Gal Holiday sound and produced an emotive record that will, at times, bring a tear to your eye.
Earlier versions of the band included David Brouillette (bass), Greg Good (acoustic guitar) and Dave Rosser (electric guitar) all featured in this video:
Sadly, Dave Rosser, born in St. Louis, Missouri, died on June 27, 2017 (Rolling Stone Obituary here), at the age of 50 having been diagnosed with colon cancer. He was also a guitarist with the Afghan Whigs playing on their 2014 re-union album and worked with other bands:
Rosser played in both Twilight Singers and the Gutter Twins, bands Dulli formed after the Whigs went on hiatus in the early 2000s. He also collaborated with Ani DiFranco, the New Orleans-based folk singer, and Gal Holiday & the Honky Tonk Revue, among others. His own band was called Get Busy. (The Times Picayune Jun 29, 2017)
The greatest gift of Lost and Found is that it embraces our sense of loss in a way that moves beyond life’s harsh realities. The track Come Home takes us beyond negative discourses, to a more soulful and appreciative place that gives hope to listeners; whilst smiling at the thought of those who have passed; with tears in our eyes.
Vanessa Niemann’s lyrics and music tell you she is no stranger to loss, sorrow and tragedy and her work on these themes connects with our blog site’s ideas concerning reflexive growth and the benefits of expressing our feelings and emotions.
Niemann has achieved a real feat by creating an album that is sensitive and thoughtful but also has energy. It has aspects of Americana with in it. For example, Desert Disco questions the nature of consumerism with lines like ‘All the money machines, bells and whistles made a loud and steady roar. All the people there, didn’t seem to care, they kept on wantin’ more’.
But, in the main, Niemann’s album fits into the Ameripolitan genre because it is about Gal’s identities and the personal journeys of the characters that Gal encounters and that Niemann has re-created in song.
Lost and Found has differently themed songs spread across the album. For example, the tracks entitled Let’s Run Away, The Bottle and the Booze and Ain’t Gonny Buy My Ring, place Gal as an independent woman experiencing different types of relationships. They highlight the potential to push beyond the rules and yet, also indicate that there are consequences when we seek to establish our own ways of being.
The tracks entitled In My Dreams Again, Found Myself Instead and Come Home demonstrate an introspection that is often associated with the Outlaw genre but also celebrate Gal Holidays ability to grow, overcome and survive.
The tracks entitled Loose Diamonds, Desert Disco, Someone Like You and Treat You Better are morality tales where the characters are portrayed as regretting their own behaviour, madness and impulsiveness. And, the tracks How Could It Be and Wayward Wind establish a dream-a-billy perspective wistfully posing questions about Gal’s and her listener’s own lives.
Niemann’s emotionally crafted set of songs also connect with our blog themes that emphasise positive feminist identities (see post on different types of womanhood here); including identities such as hard working woman, independent grafter, formidable thinker and very thoughtful partner. Her long term leadership of Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue has stood all that the world has thrown at it; justifying Niemann’s status as a leader in the field of Ameripolitan music.
By setting out a story that partially reveals her own essential truths and by asking the listener to interrogate their own life aspirations, principles and values, Niemann has produced an album that will appeal directly to those of us who have suffered the loss of loved ones, experienced relationship failure and endured untold injuries to the soul. And, yet, whilst inviting you to cry, Lost and Found will also make you dance, and laugh, and sing along.
In a time when the world is full of anger, rage and conflict: Lost and Found offers an alternative path; a way forward that asks us to take responsibility for our own positive contributions to the world; whatever we have encountered in our journeys.
Indeed, this ability, to encourage people to rise above the fray, is Niemann’s great skill. In the best traditions of country music, she is able to utilise her own feelings to pose the listener questions about who they are, what they aspire to be and whether they are being true to their own values.
Niemann’s contribution to ‘roots’ music will stand the test of time. Her ability to tear at and, yet, repair your soul, is a canny knack which sets her music above contemporary cultures of complaint.
No doubt Lost and Found fits into Dale Watson’s Ameripolitan (personal) rather than the Americanna (activist) genre. And, yet it also illustrates the false dichotomy of these two positions. For as 1960s USA based feminists argued the personal is always political. Niemann’s work does not, necessarily, pin itself to a particular political cause, but it does enable an activism of the heart.
Lost and Found, very subtly, produces a feminist narrative that depicts Gal Holiday as an attractive, powerful, thoughtful, emotional, loving and liberated character. In particular, Wayward Wind and Found Myself Instead depict a woman of experience who has come to understand herself and developed an ability to fly away from those who may wish to constrain her. You can see Vanessa Niemann discussing her album and the NOLA scene here:
Niemann is also an activist for alternative-country music, regularly touring in the USA and Europe and organising Ameripolitan events at home; in New Orleans. She shares her Ameripolitan activism with her collaborator Jimi Palacios from the NOLA County Radio Show who, alongside Niemann, will be co-organising the forthcoming 2nd Annual NOLA Ameripolitan Festival June 9th 2018.
Lost and Found is launched this coming week, it has already been acclaimed by those who received early access to it. A simple piece of advice is: go buy, order or download it here, then play it a lot. It has so many layers to it, you need to take the time to escape with the record and let its different meanings reveal themselves to you.
For a more in-depth look at specific themes relating to the song lyrics in Lost and Found – see these links to the four other parts of our review: