(originally published in Star News, additional Q&A follows)
By Brian Tucker
Walking Tall Wilmington will hold its summer BBQ at Good Hops Brewing on Carolina Beach. These events bring together people, food, fun, and live music, this time from Durham area band The Pinkerton Raid. The pairing is fitting this time, as both Walking Tall founder Randy Evans, and band leader Jesse James DeConto, hold a skeptical eye towards the system.
“What Randy’s doing, celebrating and advocating for the dignity of every person, whether you’re rich or poor or even have shelter, that’s salt-of-the-earth kind of work,” says DeConto. “And I’m just happy to help bring some attention to it in our microscopic way.”
Evans’ experience in the music industry – he was tour manager for Dex Romweber Duo during their Bloodshot Records tenure, helps bring bands to these events.
“I try and implement my love for music into Walking Tall,” Evans said. His decision to create a community outreach organization sprang from three realizations – the system is broken, the majority of services are located downtown, and that housing will not end poverty but community will.
“One night I was extremely aggravated with the system, and I happened to be watching Walking Tall with Joe Don Baker,” Evans says of the 1973 crime and corruption movie. “From there we decided all of our movements would be focused on creating community with the most marginalized, and vulnerable groups in the city.”
The Pinkerton Raid, an Americana and indie folk band whose previous albums were more about self-expression, looked outward for new release Where the Wildest Spirits Fly. It exists in the tradition of artists with songs rooted in social change – Woodie Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke. DeConto, a crime reporter for eleven years, channeled searing and colorful imagery into songs illuminating events regionally and across the country.
“This record grew out of chaos and conflict in our country, out of trying to hold together what I think of as both truth and unity. I was thinking a lot about freedom, and how there have got to be other things to tether us besides just making our own choices and advancing our own interests,” DeConto says.
“That’s how we got a president whose life has been marked by greed, crassness, and alienation from how most of us live our lives, certainly alienation from the so-called losers. I don’t think power or money or “winning” makes you a good person. How you treat people weaker than yourself, that’s what makes you good, as a president or a songwriter or a music critic or whatever you might be.”
Where the Wildest Spirits Fly is storyteller-driven material with more to say than a catchy chorus. The band surrounds songs with textured, sometimes subdued music. The album title comes from the chorus of “Thin Places,” a song smart on combining sing-along construction and lyrics about native land soaked with oil and blood. DeConto says it’s about “finding what is essential, what is fundamental about our lives.” As a whole, he hopes the album fosters discussion.
“The gang vocals are supposed to signal togetherness. Even if I’m trying to tell the truth as I know it, and even if you can’t receive that as your truth, maybe we can still sing together. I’m hoping that by crafting lyrics that can be somewhat confrontational with music that is more gentle, maybe it can invite people into a conversation where new insights can emerge.”
Additional Q&A with Jesse James DeConto
How did you get involved with Walking Tall? Did you know Randy Evans beforehand?
DeConto: I’ve met Randy but don’t know him well. We have a lot of mutual friends. As an artist, you can get so consumed in the creative process and running the business side of your music, and it’s sometimes hard to know whether any of it matters.
For this show will it be a full band affair? There are a lot of musicians involved with your music.
DeConto: We’ll be touring as a trio, me, our drummer Scott McFarlane and our bass player Jon Depue. Scott will play some trumpet, and they both sing some background vocals in a few key moments.
The new album has a vibrant, very alive, feeling to the songs. Did you record as live as possible to get such a sonic palette?
DeConto: Thanks so much, I’m glad you’re hearing life in it. Yeah, Jon, Scott and I generally recorded drums, bass and one guitar together live while I was singing scratch vocals. I had already tracked acoustic guitars on a lot of the songs by myself. Our producer David Wimbish or I overdubbed additional guitars and sometimes replaced some of the live guitar takes.
My brother Steven added some guitar parts and ukulele on “Sweet Pitchers of Mercy.” We had six of us singing live together on the choral parts you hear throughout the record, including our sister Katie and Steven’s partner Caroline. It wasn’t quite as much of a family affair as it’s been in the past, but, yeah, my brother and sister have added so much to the music over the years.
There were at least five of us in Jeff Crawford’s studio adding hand-claps and stomping on a hollow wooden case he had. At one point, Jeff sat at his Hammond organ and our producer David Wimbish sat at a Rhodes electric piano Jeff was storing for our friend Ed Kerr, and they played live together along with the bass, drums and guitar track we had recorded. Jeff told me which buttons to press on his console, and I just got to watch those two guys play off one another.
At one point, without talking about it, they traded the rhythmic approaches they each were taking. That was one of my favorite moments at Arbor Ridge Studios. “The King’s Last Stand” was one of the songs where I really wanted an old-school, Motown kind of sound, filtered through our modern sensibilities, and the keyboards on really captured that. Overall, David and Jeff just did a great job helping us make the songs sound as live as possible.
Previous albums (Tolerance and Beautiful World) were bookends so to speak, subject wise. Moving forward, what inspired you to write this one?
DeConto: At some level, I’d say this record is the result of realizing I’m simply not that interested in self-expression anymore. I’d been leading sing-alongs here in Durham, thinking about the kinds of songs that stand up through time, songs like “Stand by Me,” or “A Change Gonna Come,” or “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Those songs are rooted in personal experiences, but that gets blown up in a big-screen, epic, wide-eyed kind of way. How do I write that kind of song? Only time will tell if these songs can resonate with people.
I was trying to lend my voice to movements like Black Lives Matter or Standing Rock or immigration reform, movements that say, just because you have power, you don’t have to exercise it. Just because you possess resources, you don’t have to exploit or hoard them. You can just live alongside your fellow humans; you can make space for them. You can live in harmony with nature, you don’t have to take and take and take. You don’t have to win.
If there’s a philosophical bent to the album title, what does Where the Wildest Spirits Fly reflect for you?
DeConto: I’m trying to celebrate the wild places. We have these idioms that connect nature and spirituality – which I would just say is our own reconciliation with our own truest selves and with whatever is real and true about the universe. Different religions give it different names. But we have this language that connects earth and spirit — like the “mountaintop experience” or “go with the flow” of the river. So for me, the album title is about finding what is essential, what is fundamental about our lives.
We have these bodies, we have our inner psychology. Where do we find a sense of peace and belonging in our bodies and in our minds? Where do we find our truest selves? Where do we find the truest versions of one another? Often, it’s when we can momentarily escape from all the arbitrary trappings of capitalism – the expectations of our jobs, what kind of house or clothing or food we’re supposed to buy, how to maintain all of that. The Standing Rock Sioux are onto something when they say they don’t know who they are apart from the land and the river that wealthy people are trying to ram an oil pipeline through. How would our society change if we said, “We belong to the land,” instead of just “the land belongs to us”?
There’s a large storyteller persona to your work. Were you a writer before a songwriter – short stories, journals, etc?
DeConto: Yeah, I was a full-time journalist for the first eleven years of my career, and I’ve continued as a freelance writer since them, even as more and more of my time has gone toward music. I always gravitated toward narrative journalism by people like Ted Conover or Katherine Boo. Some people are newshounds, they just love the chase. That was never me. I love watching closely and reporting carefully because it makes the writing better, it makes the story better. I’m more of Hemingway guy than a Faulkner guy, if you know what I mean. I don’t mind playing with words, but the fact of the thing is what makes a story powerful, I think.
How long were you a crime reporter?
DeConto: I moved to the crime beat toward the end of my time at daily papers. At least I think it was the end. I may go back someday. I liked it because they were stories about fundamental humanity – who we are at our most raw and vulnerable, not protected by our graduate degrees or fancy jobs or cars or IRAs or real-estate equity or whatever. They were better stories than covering the school board or the city council, I thought.
That work casts a pall over most people, the destruction people exert on one another. Did it ever become too much ?
DeConto: I think what frustrated me about it was the surface-quality of the way we covered it. The travails of Crystal Mangum, the Duke Lacrosse accuser, are what drove me out. It was such a sensational story, and I wrote something like forty stories about her in 2010 and 2011 when she was facing attempted murder charges long after the Duke case. She had become this kind of celebrity, and that’s why we had to cover her. There were much more interesting stories beneath the surface, stories about generational family dysfunction, mental illness, poverty.
But to tell that kind of story, you have to put it into the context of the flaws of capitalism, the legacy of slavery and racism, and our band-aid approaches to social services. That’s a really hard story to tell, and there’s not time for it in the daily grind. The sensational stories are a lot easier to report and write, meaning they cost a media company less, and so that’s what we did. I don’t know that it affected my creative work all that much except insofar as I could explore my own experiences but refer to someone else’s story or vice versa. It gave me characters and plots that might be relevant to my own life, but I didn’t have to write about my own life directly.
Does the album work to bring discussion versus ‘taking a stab’ at its subject matter? There’s not enough shared-understanding between different thinking people anymore.
DeConto: Yes, I hope it does foster discussion. The gang vocals are supposed to signal togetherness. Even if I’m trying to tell the truth as I know it, and even if you can’t receive that as your truth, maybe we can still sing together. I’m hoping that by crafting lyrics that can be somewhat confrontational with music that is gentler, maybe it can invite people into a conversation where new insights can emerge.