Coleman Lantern & A Radio: My Tribute To Jason Molina
It has taken me a long time to pay tribute to Jason in a way I feel appropriate. Of course, the tribute album Farewell Transmission: The Music of Jason Molina is coming out on April 22, 2014 via Rock The Cause, and the album is a great homage to Jason and his music. However, I still feel compelled to do more, so I offer the following.
First, here is a little history on the genesis of the aforementioned tribute album. Jason’s death affected me more than any “famous” person’s death has in the past. His music affected me on a deeply personal level I could not adequately articulate the importance of his music in my life, nor could I express my feelings after his death. The album was born out of this need to honor Jason and his music. So, after Jason’s death, Chris Mateer (Uprooted Music Revue) and I discussed putting out a tribute album. One day, after emailing back and forth, Chris called to tell me he had got the non-profit label Rock The Cause on board and that they were willing to provide their expertise to produce this album. The rest is history.
The missing piece for me while trying to write about Jason has been his connection to my home state of West Virginia. Whenever I would listen to his music, I would often times ask “What’s his connection with the state?”; “What’s up with the West Virginia-related song titles on The Black Album and the constant references in his songs?” Then in 2011, the news came that Jason was in West Virginia recovering and battling alcoholism, and, then, I knew his connection was deep, probably a lot deeper than I could imagine. I did some digging and found that Jason’s family is from the Beckley area. It was the confirmation I needed. I knew my connection with Jason and his music was much more than a superficial adoration of his musical style — I felt a spiritual kinship of sorts. Jason exudes the same traits many residents of West Virginia share, and his music contains some of those same Appalachian characteristics. These connections are what spoke to me on both a conscious and subconscious level.
Working with Rock The Cause on this album, I have been given the opportunity to talk to some people who knew Jason well, which also gave me what I needed to write this tribute. It is a shame in my opinion that not much has been written about Jason’s childhood and the time spent in West Virginia. West Virginia is in his blood. It shaped him as a human being and as the songwriter he became.
Both of Jason’s parents are from Beckley, West Virginia and both sets of grandparents. Many members of the Molina family remain there. Jason spent most of his childhood between Lorain, Ohio and Beckley. His father was a teacher, so Jason spent many of his school breaks in West Virginia. He probably spent half the year exploring West Virginia. As a child, Jason would hunt for Civil War artifacts with his father in the mountains. People often say Jason is from Ohio, but that is really only half true. He’s from two different states. When he was a small child and found that he wasn’t considered a citizen of West Virginia, Jason threw a fit so bad that his father actually wrote the Governor who then replied with a letter proclaiming him a citizen of the state. That love and pride of being a West Virginian or of West Virginia heritiage, really shows in his music, and especially in Songs:Ohia’s The Black Album. West Virginians understand this love and pride of our state, history, and culture, and we seem to always be able to find others in the crowd from the state who share our spirit and sentiments. This shared camaraderie is perhaps the strongest quality that stood out about Jason and his music. Without even actually knowing this about him, I have always sensed it on some level.
In my opinion, The Black Album is one of Jason’s albums that doesn’t get the recognition or the respect it deserves. There does not seem to be a lot written about it, but what is written isn’t exactly true. It’s something that I have always felt deep in my heart whenever I would listen to it (which is everyday), but never had confirmation until the conversations I have had with people who knew Jason. Some suggest that The Black Album was incomplete — “a work in progress” — but, I contend it is actually a complete and fully-realized album. For me, it has always felt complete and just how Jason intended.
During his Junior year in high school, Jason played bass for a metal band in Cleveland. After his bandmates graduated, Jason was simply a bass player without a band. Then, Jason graduated and attended Oberlin College where he studied shape note singing. It was during this time when he started singing. After his research, Jason started performing and writing The Black Album. Written in his grandmother’s basement in Beckley he spent time studying Appalachian music which really comes through in the album. This particular aspect of The Black Album is what struck me the most. To me, it always seemed stark, dark, lonely, secluded, melancholy but not necessarily depressive. These are the qualities of Appalachian mountain music and people. West Virginians are survivors. We struggle and we have always struggled but we fight our way back from whatever bad situation comes our way. In this world, West Virginia has always felt like the “outsider”, and this outsider mentality and feeling is something that Jason wrote about throughout his career. He survived as long as he could on songwriting while battling depression, and he never really lost hope.
In some ways Jason was a historian and this is another thing that stood out in The Black Album. The song titles are distinctly West Virginian or they have played a part in the state’s history. This I know, because I hold a minor in Area (Appalachian) Studies and I am a student of West Virginia history. We had that in common as well. For example, take a look at “Hayfoot (U.M.W. Pension)”. In the song he sings, “It goes hayfoot with strawfoot, Ya throw down,” which is a reference to a Civil War cadence. During this time many of the soldiers didn’t know left from right, but they did know the difference between hay and straw. So, to help the soldiers march in step, the drill sergeants would tie a wisp of hay to the left and a wisp of straw to the right. “Tenskwatawa” was a Native American religious and political leader of the Shawnee tribe, known as the Shawnee Prophet, and the brother of Tecumseh, leader of the Shawnee. Tenskawatawa was originally given the name Lalawethika which means “He Makes a Loud Noise” or “The Noise Maker”. Was he referring to himself in “Tenskwatawa”? Who really knows? But, in true Jason fashion he would take history and apply it to his day-to-day living and songwriting writing songs in code to describe what he was feeling or going through.
Didn’t It Rain is probably the album that most personally reflects Jason. It was his aesthetic as far as music. And, for me, the lyric that stands out the most on the album is, “When I die, put my bones in an empty street/ to remind me of how it used to be/ Don’t write my name on a stone/ bring a Coleman lantern and a radio/ Cleveland game and two fishing poles” from “Blue Factory Flame.” I have always felt that this song is Jason, and I’m not entirely wrong. The lyrics were taken from a conversation about dying with a close confidant. It was a personal moment translated into song giving the listener a glimpse into some dreary yet meaningful conversation. Although written in code, it is still something intimate and the listener gets that through Jason’s ability to communicate through music. It’s really amazing and showcases his wonderful ability to craft great music. Also, that lyric from “Blue Factory Flames” is how I have always imagined Jason. I’ve always imagined him to be just a regular guy who loved to fish; a guy who enjoyed the simpler things in life.
Writing music didn’t come easy for Jason. It was his job, and he never took it for granted. He worked constantly on his music and tended to be a perfectionist about it. He would re-record songs because he thought he didn’t get it right the first time. However, Jason also recorded in a lot of one-takes. Working on songs long before entering the studio, Jason would wake up at 4 AM or 5 AM writing a song and working on it for hours or days until he got the song where he wanted it. He had a vision for his songs and knew exactly how he wanted them to sound, so one-take was often all he needed.
If there was one thing that I would want people to understand about Jason, it would be his work ethic. Jason worked hard to get the results he did. The work and progress he made throughout the years made Jason the kind of artist we all knew and loved. And, I think he owes much of his positive attitude and work mentality to his coal mining family.
Jason was an alcoholic, and like many alcoholics he suffered from depression. Throughout the years the songs would help him work through emotions, but towards the end he wasn’t really writing a lot of music. He didn’t have that outlet like before. He wasn’t writing at the same pace. He never recorded these, but he would talk to friends and family about them, and sometimes he would sing those songs to them. It didn’t seem to help much though. His friends and family rallied around him trying to help him get better, thinking that if he could get back into music things would change, but they didn’t. Sadly, Jason lost his battle last March. Jason was only 39 years old. He had a lot more to give and more songs to sing, and that’s what affected me and many people the most.
No one will ever know the impact Jason has had on music, but most who have listened to his songs have been forever changed by the emotion he was able to convey. There are a number of things about Jason that really resonate with me. They are his pride in his West Virginia roots, his ability to connect with people through song, and, most importantly, the fact that he was really always just a regular guy. He was a grandson, son, brother, friend, and so much more, but he was also very much just an ordinary West Virginian who happened to write and perform incredible songs.
Because Jason’s music has had a tremendous affect on my life and my perception of music, I wanted to share the same experience with others. Producing something that allowed Jason and his music to live on was the purpose of Farewell Transmission: The Music of Jason Molina. It was a selfish, yet not-so-selfish way for me to heal. Proceeds from the tribute will go to the family Jason left behind and MusiCares, a non-profit organization helping uninsured musicians battling depression, substance abuse, and other disabilities. So, please help Jason live on by first, buying the album, and, second by donating to organizations like MusiCares, Nuci’s Space, and Sweet Relief
–April Wolfe, Common Folk Music