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Texas Songwriter Vincent Neil Emerson Believes Indigenous Music Is Folk Music

Jan 6, 2022

Texas Songwriter Vincent Neil Emerson Believes Indigenous Music Is Folk Music

The self-titled country album by East Texan singer-songwriter Vincent Neil Emerson (Choctaw-Apache) oozes of the iconic “Wild West” with honky-tonk sensibilities and bluegrass touches that combine so many favorite textures and styles of country and Americana’s primordial ooze. His personality and identity are forward in every aspect of the project, from the lyrics to the production to the genre fluidity of each individual track – all of which marvelously combine into a cohesive whole.

In Emerson’s exclusive Shout & Shine live session (watch below), he performs two tracks from the album, “High on Gettin’ By” and “The Ballad of the Choctaw-Apache,” a song that dutifully tells the story of his grandmother’s community which was impacted by the creation of a man-made lake, the Toledo Bend Reservoir. The flooding of Toledo Bend had a disproportionate impact on impoverished, rural, and marginalized communities – including many Indigenous people – on the Texas-Louisiana border. 

On first listen, “The Ballad of the Choctaw-Apache” feels like many classic country songs telling of injustice and standing in opposition to empire and “the man,” but Emerson’s personal connection to the tale is the entrancing spotlight under which this song shines. As you enjoy Emerson’s performance, take in our interview, when we connected via phone to discuss the album, Emerson’s creative process, and the overarching fact that, as he puts it, “Indigenous music is folk music. Indigenous stories are part of American folklore.”

BGS: I loved listening to the album and something that’s striking to me is that it feels so country, but also combines a lot of different genre aesthetics from different subsets of country in a unique way. I hear bluegrass in it, I hear string band music in it as well as western swing and classic country. How do you approach production and deciding which songs sound like what? There are a lot of different flavors here, but they still sound cohesive as well.

Emerson: With this one I got really lucky having Rodney Crowell producing the album. I think a lot of his ideas were what I was hearing in my head anyways. It matched up very well. As far as instrumentation, song by song we sat down and said, “Here’s what I think the song needs.” We were trying to fit the instrumentation around the song and around the story of the song. As opposed to doing it the other way around. If it sounded bluegrassy, that’s because it probably needed it, I guess! 

To me it sounds like that golden age of country before it was divided into sub-genres and all country was just country. 

I appreciate that! 

What was it like working with Rodney? What was the balancing act like as far as his fingerprints being on the music and yours? 

Nothing was forced, it was kind of like, “We got this song and this is what we’re going to do.” And, “Yeah, that sounds good!” [Chuckles] I wouldn’t say he was very hands-off, he knew exactly what he was doing. I didn’t really question any move that he made. It was kind of surreal getting to work with him. 

A bystander, or a casual listener, when they hear “Ballad of the Choctaw-Apache” might just hear a country & western song, but I know for you it’s not just a classic, archetypical country song tale, it’s much more personal. It tells the iconic story of this country and this continent of the theft of land, culture, and ways of being from natives. I wonder if you could tell us a bit more about that song and how it’s more than just you writing a “rootsy” song.

I started writing that song after I sat down and talked with my grandmother about her upbringing, what she went through, and how the whole Toledo Bend Reservoir [creation in Texas and Louisiana and the displacement of natives and entire communities] affected her family. As I’ve been learning more about my tribe I felt that it was necessary to write something about that. I haven’t heard any songs written about it – in fact, not a lot of people talk about it. I thought it was needed. 

Sometimes music like yours can get pigeonholed as “time capsule music” or throwback music. Something I love about this collection of songs is that, even though it’s classic and timeless, it doesn’t feel dusty or antiquated or divorced from the present. Can you talk a bit about that? Your music is down to earth, too, but it doesn’t feel like you’re trying to make music that’s retro. 

There are a lot of bands out there that sort of play dress-up. There’s nothing wrong with that! I respect that and I’ve done it, too, but they’re trying really hard to be a certain era. I love all that music from the old school — I love Bob Wills — it’s just a personal choice. I don’t feel the need to “dress up” or try really hard to make the music sound like it was from back then. I’m so heavily influenced by the people around me and what’s going on around me constantly. 

One guy who really had a good mix of that, too, was Justin Townes Earle. He had the old-time thing going on, then he could bust out “Rogers Park,” a piano ballad, and move in and out of [many different styles]. A personal style of songwriting should be a melting pot, it should be all eras – past and present. 

Music is so subjective, I’m a firm believer in the idea that however you hear it is what it is. Whether that’s a positive thing or a negative thing to someone, I think it’s their right. I can’t tell anybody they’re wrong for forming their own opinion about my music – or anybody’s music. 

It sounds like the process of letting a song have a life of its own is a big part of the process for you and that you understand an audience is always going to project onto or perceive meaning maybe where you didn’t yourself. 

I don’t like to bounce my stuff off of people that much, because I’m going to write what I’m going to write. I don’t want to let people influence me too much in that way. But it is a really good feeling whenever you write something and you get a positive reaction or positive feedback. I think I’m more focused on the songwriting. As long as I’m being one hundred percent honest with myself in the song then I feel like it’s a tool for me to express myself completely. I feel that’s good enough. 

A point that I always try to make about country, Americana – especially “country & western” specifically – Texas swing, and western swing traditions is that none of these genres would exist without the contributions of Indigenous folks. Especially when you think about Indigenous folks living in the occupied “Wild West” before any other folks did. And there were Black and brown folks who were cowboys before white folks ever were. I feel like that’s always missed, forest-for-the-trees style, by the roots music establishment these days. Country wouldn’t exist without Indigenous folks. Do you have thoughts on that? Have you thought about how your music draws on that legacy? 

That’s something I’m still trying to understand myself and really learn about. I think you definitely have a great point there. If you think about it, the settlers came over and they didn’t know how to work the land, they didn’t know how to hunt over here. Natives taught them all that and the settlers took that information and they thrived with it. Our society would not exist in the U.S. if it weren’t for the people who were here before. And it applies to the music as well, yeah.

The album feels so western. Like rhinestones and cactuses and false-fronted buildings. It feels so “authentic,” but it’s not just about the nationalism of settling the Wild West and it’s not about these white supremacist myths about cowboys and western culture. Could you talk a bit about that aesthetic? How Texas and the West and something like cowboy poetry and storytelling come through your songwriting? 

I never really set out to try to write about these things, it’s just the things I’ve been surrounded by. I worked on a ranch for a little while. “High on the Mountain,” that song came to me while I was literally on the top of a mountain – well, it was more of a hill – while I was in Palo Duro Canyon. Growing up in Texas, seeing all that stuff, it kinda [left an impression]. A lot of it, as far as stylistically, comes from listening to people like Bob Wills and Townes Van Zandt and Blaze Foley. Anyone that I’ve been influenced by, their influence creeps into it. It’s definitely not just a brand, it’s more my life. [Laughs] I never really thought about it, actually! 

I grew up between a horse ranch and a cow pasture in East Texas. I grew up in the middle of nowhere. When you get into cities like Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, these bigger cities, there’s a lot more to the area I’m from than just little podunk country towns. I learned that when I was 19. I moved over here [to the Fort Worth area] and was like, “Holy shit!” There was a lot going on. There’s a lot of rich, cultural, musical history. I’d like to dive more into that on the next record. I want to try to put some Tejano music in the blender. Maybe some polka and western swing. See what happens! If you go down around the Hill Country there’s a lot of German music, German immigrants, there are entire communities that still speak German over there. 

Maybe this is a good way to wrap up our conversation: Who’s inspiring you right now? Who are you listening to? 

As far as Indigenous artists go, I think folks really need to listen to Leo Rondeau. He is one of the baddest motherfuckers out there doing it right now. Really, really great music. In the realm of music I play, there’s not a whole lot of Indigenous people doing it. Of course, I think there are a lot of people with Indigenous heritage, but as far as being able to immediately trace your roots back like my grandmother who is Choctaw-Apache from Ebarb, Louisiana, there’s not a lot of that. It’s kind of a shame. And I’m not the end-all be-all on the subject! I’m not the most up to date on things. I’m sure there are a lot more, I’d love to learn more and hear more. It’s a good thing to bring up and a good question to ask, because it’s something people should be thinking about. 

Photo credit: Melissa Payne

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Texas Songwriter Vincent Neil Emerson Believes Indigenous Music Is Folk Music
Texas Songwriter Vincent Neil Emerson Believes Indigenous Music Is Folk Music