My Country 'Tis of Thee: In the studio with Shiloh Lindsey
Somewhere in Nanton, AB, a cowboy is without his hat. I know where it is. Well, that is to say, I know who has it. And from what I’ve heard, she more than deserves it.
If you ever visit Nanton, you’ll find the Auditorium Hotel, “The Odd” to the locals. It is filled with stuffed animals (taxidermy, not Care Bears) and old logging and farm tools. It smells dusty along with the combined homey bar smells: spilled beer and cleaning products. Built in 1902, it supplies its patrons with “cozy rooms, […] home-style meals, and regular live music.” On a Thursday night in 2009, Shiloh Lindsey was the live music. Towards the end of the night, a local cowboy apparently took exception to Lindsey’s urbanized cowboy hat and insisted she take his. The locals were shocked. His daughter could not believe her eyes. From what I understand, the act was analogous to Clint Eastwood handing over his Navy Colt to an up and coming gunslinger.
How do I know this? I asked.
Sitting in Kirk Douglas’ studio, Sound Lounge Productions, I ask Shiloh how her brand of Country Music was received in those places where you still find more cows than concrete. She answers with the story about a hat, its brim worn down in the spot where a real cowboy tipped it with his work-stained hands to countless passing ladies over the years.
It makes perfect sense to me. When Lindsey sings, she sucks you right in. There is an honesty in her songs that is absent from a lot of music today. This is not a deliberate attempt to fight against what Lindsey and Douglas refer to as “the machine,” that place where some music originates where there is “no real honesty.” I say that this isn’t deliberate in the same sense that breathing air into your lungs is deliberate; it just has to happen. Lindsey writes from a place where her music could not exist without its inherent honesty. Honesty is the quantum particle Lindsey’s music is built from.
We break to listen to a track from the new album. “Six 6ft Skids” is a piece of pure Concrete Country. Listening to the song, I am transported back to the night I first stumbled west down East Hastings after ingesting too much of too much. The lyrics relate a humorous story we can all understand even if the chorus, “Six 6ft skids,” is slightly cryptic. I ask Lindsey about the meaning of the chorus (pounded out in gang vocals by some of the local lads) and she smiles. If you didn’t already know, you never would. Suffice it to say, if you’ve ever worked in a liquor store, you’d get it. The song itself, feels a little disjointed after the first chorus, but as it settles on you, everything falls into place, literally. I ask Lindsey and Douglas about this and we start discussing how Shiloh “build[s] a song.”
For Shiloh, song writing is therapeutic and cathartic. It starts with “writing out some stuff,” progresses through the “talking and therapy” stage, and finishes with “a whole box of Kleenex” sitting empty in a corner of the studio. Despite having all the raw emotion of the average 14 year old’s first attempt at Emo poetry, Lindsey’s lyrics and music aren’t weepy or self-pitying. Other than the obvious difference in talent, Lindsey’s writing differs from overwrought, teenage angst partly because she’s not an angst-ridden teenager, but mostly because she doesn’t want you to feel sorry for her. She’s not looking to bring you down; she’s just telling you a story. If she hits a nerve it’s because all of us can place ourselves in her shoes, no matter what size we wear. This is the sign of a true songwriter: someone who pours so much emotion and honesty into a song that the song in turn draws an equal amount from the listener.
Listening to another track on the album, I am struck again by another component of Lindsey’s music: her delivery. I first heard it in “Whiskey and Rum” on her first album. Sometimes, she rambles. A lot of singers pain themselves to enunciate every damn word. When we’re upset or excited, we don’t break off into a pseudo-Shakespearean soliloquy; we ramble. She vocalizes emotion and it adds to your overall experience. All this is also part down of her stripped down approach to recording. “We wanted it raw,” is how she explains the mindset for recording her latest album. When you see her play live, how she could walk into a studio with anything but raw, is a mystery.
The next time Shiloh and I meet, we’re at The Five Point on Main Street. I known her for a few years, seen her live more times than I can count, and sat in with her working in the studio but this is the first time Shiloh and I have ever sat down and just talked about nothing. As the conversation, and beer, progresses, we share stories we’d never have expected.
Far be it for me to ever view Country Music from an existentialist’s point of view but I think I’m about to.
There have been moments in Shiloh’s life that were anything but happy. I won’t get into details as they really aren’t mine to share, but I will say the honesty and emotion in her music now have a genesis as far as I’m concerned. But rather than shy away from the stories of her past, she writes and records them for us. She doesn’t ask for your sympathy but just hands you a note for you to read and pocket.
I brought my camera today to take pictures for this article but don’t. Once you start chatting with Shiloh, you find you don’t really want to do anything else. We take a small tour of the neighbourhood, including a stop at her job, The Brewery Creek Liquor Store, where we restock for our travels. We end up back at her place, where we keep talking about everything and nothing. One of the boys formerly of No Horses is on his way over for rehearsal and I find myself taking pictures of everything, everything but Shiloh. She’s a beautiful young woman but conversation supersedes image until she finds a book of old poetry. It’s that book of old poetry, the one every writer has sitting around somewhere and is always embarrassed to find. She flips it open and starts reading. My shutter finally clicks. No posed picture could ever tell you who Shiloh Lindsey is but when I catch her flipping through a book of old poetry, she is just a human who loves life and words and has this amazing talent to share them with all of us.