Souled American – Honing the art of self-cultivation
“You can magnify beauty, take it apart, see how it got to be so damn pretty. You take a song and you look at it real close, and what happens? Well, first of all, you have to slow it down a bit to really hear what’s going on. And once you’ve done that, you find you don’t need so many chord changes, you don’t need so much activity. It just gets in the way. Of the beauty.”
— From Make Me Laugh, Make Me Cry: 50 Posters About Souled American, edited by Camden Joy
Think of Loretta Lynn traveling the South, pleading with DJs to spin her first record, sleeping in her car every night and babying her one good dress. Or of George Jones, dodging the drunken brutality of his father and playing on the street for coins, thrilled when he realizes that people like him. Such is the stuff that country music legend is built on.
Then consider alt.country pioneers Souled American, who have generated a very different kind of musical legend. Over more than a decade and six albums together, the Chicago-based band has reversed the rags-to-riches process, becoming more obscure with each passing year. They have delved ever deeper into their introverted musical vision, an organic kind of sound that is immune to trends or commercial success. In the process, their stark, eerie country-based music has become slower, sparer, and less available in every sense of the word.
Bassist Joe Adducci and guitarist Chris Grigoroff, the core of Souled American, met in 1983 in Charleston, Illinois. Both of them grew up in households in which music was an obsession. Adducci’s mother has written country songs all her life; Souled American has covered her songs on two albums. Grigoroff’s father ran radio stations when he was a child. “In our house, music was everywhere,” Grigoroff remembers. “I got into Dylan and Prine, people who were connected to life. Music was not only entertainment but something else as well.”
Twentysomething old-time country music fans were rare in the tractland of Illinois, and the two bonded over their love of the genre. “Joe was the partner I’d been looking for all my life. We found the affinities for country music and a sense that we were able to create new music. We’ve always perceived ourselves as a rock ‘n’ roll band, but to a large degree country is at the core of what we write.” Guitarist Scott Tuma has also played on all of Souled American’s records.
The band, then a four-piece with drums, began their recording career by churning out three albums — Fe, Flubber and Around The Horn — for Rough Trade in eighteen months from 1988-90. These albums, uptempo by the standard of their later work, presaged the alternative-country upsurge with drawling vocals, country and reggae-influenced rhythms, and an all-around freewheeling spirit. At that time, the band appeared on the commercial radar, touring and receiving press attention.
Their fortunes sank, however, when Rough Trade went bankrupt. Since then, the three domestic Rough Trade albums have been available only in used-record bins. Nonetheless, the members of Souled American bear no ill will. “A lot of people had bones with Rough Trade,” remembers Grigoroff, “but they let us make records.” Their sound, which had slowed progressively with each release, continued to evolve from country-tinged rock to something much stranger and more atmospheric.
In Souled American’s early days, college-rock audiences could, by and large, connect to the band’s country-influenced rock sound, though they sold fewer records with each release. After their third album, however, their audience declined precipitously, and they ceased touring in the United States. “There’s not an audience,” Grigoroff says calmly. “We saw the naked truth. We changed, and that was the downfall of our audience.” After Rough Trade, the band was unable to secure a deal with another American label. “The honest-to-god truth is, no American label would sign us,” Grigoroff says. “Souled American hasn’t turned down much in its life. We’ve snapped at everything we’ve been offered.”
The band soldiered on, recording anb album titled Sonny for Rough Trade’s still-solvent European branch. James Bernard, the drummer, left the band after Sonny. Grigoroff characterizes Bernard’s departure as beneficial to the band: “It offered an opportunity to play with a drummer only when we wanted to.” Souled American then recorded two records, Frozen and Notes Campfire, for Moll, a small German label. While the band was able to tour and sell records in Europe, their profile in the States was almost nonexistent. The expectations of the public, however, fell behind self-expression on the band’s list of priorities. “I don’t see a lot of people feeling free enough to cultivate themselves instead of cultivating an audience,” Grigoroff says.
The bands’ last three albums have a low and lonesome sound that is as much about the spaces between notes as the notes themselves, a wintry, meditative quality that at first feels unfamiliar and a little jarring. Each instrument is stripped down to its most elemental qualities. Guitar and bass float around each other in an off-kilter dance, neither decisively taking the lead. Vocals have a sad, hollow sound, and are sung at a pace so slow that a layperson would find it physically difficult to sing along. Drums, used rarely, jump in at surprising junctures. Each note, each syllable, is an event.
Souled American devotees, however, find in the band’s sound a beauty that no one else can duplicate. When the band moans lyrics like “It’s hard enough to find an open door/It’s hard enough to see/It’s hard enough to sit and wait your turn/It’s hard enough to be,” it’s obvious that they mean it from the deepest part of their collective soul. Rather being just another voice added to the dialogue about what’s cool or new at a given musical moment, their music is the product of a solitary exploration of what sounds right to them.
“When you’re a songwriter, things come out of you. You don’t control it,” Grigoroff muses. “Words can’t be lies. It’s only natural that we would move beyond what we did in the beginning.”
Souled American is named after a satirical Lenny Bruce routine about buying American, and, to Grigoroff, the band’s existence is an outgrowth of “the need to question the American thing. It’s about what you are versus what you wanted to be. The world that was presented to us growing up is not the real world. If life was great for everybody, there wouldn’t be a need for Souled American.”
It is this anti-commercial spirit that, after many years, has sparked a small commercial resurgence for Souled American. In a world of relentless self-promotion, marketing and trend-hopping, Souled American’s uncomplaining slide into oblivion has drawn a small portion of the attention that Jesus promised to the meek. The band was surprised to find hundreds of rapt fans at a series of shows last year in Chicago and San Francisco. Among them were many writers and industry people, many of whom, until recently, had been unaware that Souled American still existed.
In May, Chicago’s Checkered Past began reissuing Frozen, with wider distribution planned for September, and Notes Campfire will be reissued early in 1999. Checkered Past honcho Eric Babcock, who lost access to the band’s rare earlier work when his turntable was stolen, was surprised to find the band was still together; when he heard their Moll albums, he was eager to release them domestically. “Here is a band that obviously has some truck with country, but they personalize it, recraft it,” he comments.
Andee Connors, an employee of Aquarius Records, a San Francisco store that sells Souled American imports, plans to reissue the band’s first four CDs on his Tumult label in November. “It was one of those promises you make to yourself,” says Connors. “They’ve always been my favorite band, no matter what kind of music I was into. The more aware I became of how unknown and unavailable they were, the more I thought that I’d do anything to release their records. I’m borrowing lots of money.”
Meanwhile, underground rock critic Camden Joy has compiled and edited a compendium of haunting ruminations on Souled American’s musical and career trajectory. Available as a book, the writings also appeared as street posters around New York and Chicago. The attention was surprising and gratifying to the band; when he received a notice about the book, Grigoroff jokes that he suspected it was a notice from a collection agency. “It blew us away. We haven’t been paid compliments a lot. We didn’t know people listened to our records.”
The band is currently recording its seventh album in tiny Kansas, Illinois, where they rented a little house and transformed it into a home studio. In the past, they’ve taken up to two years to complete an album. “We’re in the beginning stages,” says Grigoroff. “We’re just in the first couple of months. We’re kind of slow.” But now, for the first time in years, the band is negotiating a deal with an American label to release the album.
Asked how the band sees its future, Grigoroff replies: “Trying to write songs. Trying to get through life. Trying to make records. We’re going to make music and never let money stop us. We don’t make a living. We try to survive.”
Souled American’s career hasn’t been easy. “But maybe,” Grigoroff suggests, “easy is the killer of creativity.”