Pat Haney – All hands on deck
Pat Haney knows gas stations and John Prine, American history and bluegrass, towboats and toasters. “I could tell you the history of the world starting with a toaster,” he says.
Haney speaks of moving in and out of college at Western Kentucky University, where he eventually earned his B.A. in American History, but he’s also talking about his songs. There’s much history, of a personal and public provenance, in the concrete, empathetic stories on his debut album, Wrong Rite Of Passage. The lessons he draws from history are most deeply located in the details of human lives: daily struggles, momentary visions, inescapable memories.
Haney, 33, has been writing stories and poems as long as he can remember. “I was 12 or 13 when I got my first guitar,” he recalls. “Instead of handing someone a poem and expecting them to read it, I could put it in their face with a song and they’d have to hear it.”
Haney was born in Brownsville, Kentucky, his father a small-town pharmacist who moved the family to Bowling Green when Pat was seven. He attended college for one semester, never settling into his studies. Heeding an uncle who worked as an engineer on the Mississippi, Haney took to the river. Music flowed to him in those itinerant, working years.
“I used to work on towboats on the lower Mississippi River,” he says. “St. Louis to New Orleans, pushing the barges. The crew encouraged me to write songs. I’d mess around in the galley writing. We had a fictitious band. We called it the All Deck Hand Band. We’d beat on those giant Crisco tubs, big cans of tuna; some guy would play spoons, that kind of shit. It was just fun; I never took it seriously.
“I wasn’t a very good guitar player, and I still don’t consider myself a musician. I know a lot of musicians and it’s an insult to them to call myself one, because they’ve worked their whole lives to master their instruments. At that point, I was so bad that I had to make up songs, because I couldn’t do anybody else’s. I pulled off John Prine, but he’s the first to tell you he’s not a picker. It’s just three chords and some good words.”
After three years, Haney, then 21, quit the river. “It’s no life really, if you want to settle down and do something, ’cause you’re gone so much. Now look at me, I’m running around the country playing music; like that settled me down any. I guess I got to see things a lot of people don’t. I met some pretty rough characters, and got to know them really well.”
One of the finest songs on Wrong Rite Of Passage, “Jealous Of The River”, is a surprisingly successful personification of the Mississippi and Memphis as lovers. “Geographically they can never separate,” Haney says. “Memphis and the river are stuck together forever. I pictured the river being jealous of all the people visiting Memphis. They’ve had hard times in their relationship, but leaving is not an option. You have to tough it out. There’s no running away. You have to make it work.”
The poetic turn Haney gives to real places and lives, the imaginative remaking of history, distinguishes his songs, lends his art a compelling individualism. In the studio, Haney called on friends who were also heavyweight pickers: Curtis Burch (dobro and guitar), Byron House (upright bass), Chris Carmichael (mandolin and violin), and Daylon Wear (guitars, bass, drums), among others.
But for three electric rockers, the arrangements most recall the acoustic passion of Steve Earle’s Train A Comin’. Though he confesses that he “wanted it even more stripped down than it is,” the sound of Wrong Rite Of Passage never undermines Haney’s real strengths: his unstudied, emotional singing and the “hound dog poetry” of his memorable, many layered songs.