Songs We Love: Rachel Baiman, 'Shame'
There's a presumption among some people who have little contact with old-time, string band, bluegrass and folk music that those are mostly stagnant traditions, stuck in some sort of distant, Arcadian past and locked into so-called primitive patterns. The truth of the matter is that those traditions can be strikingly elastic, and they continue to attract new generations of keen musical minds, like Chicago-bred banjo and fiddle player Rachel Baiman.
After moving to Nashville, she spent several years exploring the possibilities of instrumental interplay, frequenting an old-time jam at a small bar, forming the inventively spare, rhythmically honed duo 10 String Symphony with fellow fiddle player Christian Sedelmyer and taking occasional side gigs, including a pair of Kacey Musgraves shows at the Ryman Auditorium.
Recently, though, 27-year-old Baiman has been reckoning with other aspects of her roots and testing her music's potential to carry a timely message, raised as she was by social-worker and radical-economist parents who hauled her to the Ethical Humanist Society of Greater Chicago on Sundays. Following last fall's presidential election, she teamed up with picker pals in Nashville and New York City to organize politically-focused benefit shows under the banner of Folk Fights Back.
"Shame," the title track of her upcoming album, captures the spirit of wry truth-telling that she's cultivated in some of her latest work. A jaunty banjo figure bobs above a strolling folk-rock groove and sets a playful tone, while her lyrics, delivered with reedy, willful nonchalance, critique the merging of religious, moral and political influence.
Baiman sat down with NPR at an East Nashville cafe and explained where she's coming from over a cup of tea.
Jewly Hight: Thanks to 10 String Symphony, I knew you to be a virtuosic tweaker of tradition, but I didn't really have a sense of your voice or vantage point until I heard this solo album. Is your solo work meant to create space for that?
Rachel Baiman: Absolutely. I would say that I didn't necessarily have a sense of my voice prior to this project.
It's not your first solo album.
It's not my first, but it's my first that's original songwriting. The project that I did in 2014 was based on exploring instrumental interests that I had and playing with songs that I knew from other traditions. I feel like this is my first [project] of my songs. I think it was that I had written a few of these songs and I really felt like I wanted to do them as me, just because they felt so personal.
The title track instantly reminded me of an old-timey singer-songwriter who arrived a couple of generations ahead of you, John Hartford.
Oh, it's absolutely inspired by John Hartford, the feel of that first track. I had written the lyrics already, but in thinking about how I wanted to present it musically, I was definitely going for a feel with the combination of the banjo and the half-time drums, kind of the raw acoustic-electric combination. It's very serious lyrically, but I wanted it to feel positive and fun, something you can enjoy singing along to and be uplifted by rather than this crushing, dark thing. I mean, John Hartford music is some of the best-feeling music that I can think of.
I think people also remember him as something of a philosopher. So I wondered if the way he integrated his musings with his musical wit was something you connect with in general.
Absolutely. He's very conversational in his lyrics, in the sense that he'll include a really specific detail or say something in a really silly way, but it's actually very profound, what he's saying. He does it in a way that you don't feel like you're listening to something that is ivory-tower language. One of my other biggest musical heroes is Courtney Barnett, and she kind of does the same thing lyrically, where she talks about these really everyday things and you feel like you're just listening to someone yap to their friend, and you kind of laugh about it, but then you're like, "Oh, that was actually really smart."
I gather that your song "Shame" was inspired by a Dan Savage rant about Texas defunding Planned Parenthood, and the connection between the religious right and the pro-life movement in general. How'd you get from Savage's pointed message to your more personalized and conversational treatment of the topic?
I had written the verses from a very personal standpoint, my own relationship with religion. Then I was looking for some sort of message that really tied it together. I felt like I knew what I wanted to say, but I hadn't really gotten it out. Then listening to Dan Savage talk about defunding Planned Parenthood and the way that those efforts are kind of not focused on actual pro-life goals kind of brought the song together for me.
The first line of the second verse is "Old white men write books about faith and..."
That almost sounds like you're trying to pinpoint the source of the problem.
I mean, I didn't have a specific person in mind. It was more just a commentary on the fact that it seems to me that these condemnations are always made by these people that are not going to be ever in the [vulnerable] positions [they're talking about]. It's interesting for me, because I've always been outside of that, because I wasn't raised with religion.
When did you become self-conscious about the difference between your background and others' backgrounds?
In high school and growing up, I wasn't so concerned about feminism, and I think it's because I didn't really have to be. Moving down here and befriending people that had strong religious backgrounds, it was actually my first understanding of how real religion was in so many people's lives. Because I was starting a more professional career and starting to gig and things like that, it was also my first realization that I was treated differently, trying to be a professional musician and always feeling like "the girl."
Sometimes it takes leaving your native context to develop that self-awareness.
I'm really glad that I went somewhere that was challenging to me in terms of a bit of culture shock and a bit of understanding that the whole world didn't think the same way that I did. I think that's really important and super healthy, to understand that people that have these opinions aren't idiots. They're not crazy. They just have been raised a different way. I think I had to work through a lot of that too, from being a super self-righteous kid that thought I knew everything.
I read that when you were younger, you were overwhelmed by the global scale of social and political issues, and music became a way for you to engage. How did that happen?
My dad is a radical economist and he's obsessed with politics and economics and everything that's going on in the world at large. That was daily conversation over dinner every night: terrible things that had happened in the world, everything that's wrong with the political structure. Having your parents tell you that the world is ending when you're, like, 7 or 8, it's, like, really scary.
When I left home, I was so focused on music. I didn't want to be thinking about politics at all. I think I just needed a break from it and I needed to figure out what I thought outside of what I was told over and over. I think that's part of why I dove into music so intensely. It felt so concretely meaningful, whereas these other things felt so huge and like I couldn't do anything about them. I guess I've been here eight or nine years now, and it's only now, and partially because of the Trump presidency, that I feel strongly about getting back into the political realm, being active in that.
What exactly is Folk Fights Back?
It's this fledgling organization that I started with two friends — one in New York, Lily Henley, and one here in Nashville, Kaitlyn Raitz. We started it right after Trump was elected. It's a series of benefit shows bringing together the folk music community and focusing on one issue. The first one was in January, and had an environmental focus. It just happened in Nashville and New York. In March, we did Folk Fights Back for Immigrants and Refugees, and that was in New York; Boston; Chicago; Nashville; Stockholm, Sweden and Toronto, Canada. They all happened around the same day, so it's like a day of solidarity. That was amazing. We raised over $12,000 for local refugee and immigrant groups. The concept behind it is that the show itself should be an awareness event, so I was getting in touch with all these bands that are outside my little bubble that have immigrants in them or people of different backgrounds, trying to get people in the same room that haven't met each other.
A lot of the musicians you've enlisted are your 20- or 30-something peers. How have you seen your generation of old-time, string-band, folk and bluegrass musicians embracing activism lately?
You come into the Trump presidency and you realize, "What a privilege it's been to have the apathy of, 'OK, well, it's all going to be basically fine, so I'm just gonna focus on my own s***.' " I do think that my peers at large, myself included, have had a real awakening. I think everyone has a responsibility and a role. For musicians who are touring and talking to people on stage every night and having a voice through their music, I think many are feeling much more inclined to speak out politically. I think it's great if you push the envelope a little bit and make people a little uncomfortable with music. Everybody has their different ways of going about it.
Do you see links between the work you all are doing and the activism of earlier generations of folkies?
In Nashville, it's interesting because you have folk [music] that's traditionally very liberal and you have country and bluegrass that's traditionally very conservative, and it's sort of a music of nostalgia and celebrating the past. When you are in the South, playing traditional music is more about celebrating the way things were. It's an interesting one, being sort of in the middle of those traditions, because I play bluegrass and I love country music and I play old-time and folk music. I think down here it's especially cool, because you're seeing a lot of those bands that traditionally would've been nostalgic kind of flip and go, "Yay, the past!" but also, "Yay, doing things a little bit better now!" — a lot of Southern liberal bands and musicians coming out of these traditionally conservative genres. And I think the folk scene that has always been politically left and liberal continues to do that, but it's more interesting when you can see a change and a new reach.