Those words are John Muir's, and they pretty nearly describe the experience of hearing Red June play live in a small venue. Like drinking from the First Fountain, the essential sweet source from which the mighty River of Life itself springs, and is renewed. OK. That might be a bit over the top. How about this: they're really, really, really good.
But then, maybe the gushing isn’t so much. Because although it may be strange to say, the sense I get from listening to Red June’s new album Remember Me Well is that it was written and performed by incredibly wise human beings, not merely incredibly talented musicians. From what they sing, and what they play, you can just feel the sense of sorrow and sadness that is life, but which is so much bigger than that — a thing whose very sadness is beautiful beyond full comprehension, and thus transcends mere disconsolation. The richness of feeling is similar to Jay Unger’s “Ashokan Farewell” (the theme music to Ken Burns’ Civil War series), which somehow captured the foreordained melancholy of brother fighting brother, but from which sprang yet a fragile flower of hope — the power and beauty of the individual souls engaged in that most terrible of struggles.
On a recent Wednesday night, I met the musicians, which was for me something like an experience out of a movie. I didn’t talk to them very much, although I have to say, I did my best to keep John Cloyd Miller from finishing his dinner before they went on to play, bending his ear as much as I could. This was at the Blackbird restaurant in Black Mountain. (As an aside, I can very heartily recommend the trout here. Quite delicious, and reasonably priced too.) But John didn’t disappoint my imagined perception of who the band must be. In looks, he reminds me just a bit of Jake Gyllenhaal, if only you removed that actor’s slightly neurotic air. And he took the time to give me career advice, of all things.
As for the sound of the band, I keep thinking of the Miles Davis’ injunction that “less is more.” They are a trio that play with such magical unison that you’d think they must be one person. And as they play, they smile sweetly, knowing that whether the crowd gets it or not, they have just said something truly deep to each other, without speaking a single word. The harmonies make one want to invoke Crosby, Still, Nash, and Young, although there was something truly god-like about what they accomplished. If Red June doesn’t quite ascend to those Olympian heights, they do indeed come close.
Miller’s sweet and true voice reminds one of James Taylor, just a bit, but the whole band sing very, very well. There is the deep and solid sound of Will Straughan’s resonator guitar, anchoring the band, along with Miller‘s acoustic guitar, above which floats the light sound of Natalya Weinstein’s violin, every bowed note necessary and without the single, tiniest thing beyond that necessity. Weinstein is a classically trained violinist and has won a number of fiddling competitions, which is no surprise, when you hear her play. How else could she have learned how to play so very little, such that the littleness carries you away like a soft summer breeze?
Remember Me Well has not a single weak track on it, and picking a favorite is hard, since repeated listening increases the pleasure of each song. I do love Miller‘s “A Quiet Mind” and their cover of Neil Young’s “Comes a Time.” Again, the harmonies. But my favorite is still Will Staughan’s “Run Boy Run,” which came on the radio as I was driving down I-40, and which went through my body like an electric shock on that first hearing. It is this song, an ode to Bob Dylan, that made me seek out the band. The lyrics are so good, that I want to quote them:
"Follow that carnival run boy run
Couldn't hold a candle to the things you've done
Just a broke ass cowboy and the work's all done
But I'm dancing to the wild thin mercury sound
Chase the festival run boy run
Couldn't hold a candle to the tales you've spun
Hibbing Minnesota is a small, small town
We're dancing to the wild thin mercury sound
Down the mystical river to the Gulf of Mexico
From the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Redwood Coast
You'll always be searching for the love and the light
Never lost your aim in the darkest night
You've been murdered and born again
Never set yourself to the idiot wind
Over and over and over again
The end is the beginning and the beginning is the end"
Bob Dylan is a famously difficult person to interview, being combative and even churlish at times. But Louis Menand wrote an article about this in the New Yorker (“Bob on Bob”) that provides a very insightful explanation. Dylan wasn’t very interested in anything beyond what he was trying to achieve musically, which was a certain “sound.” In his words it was “that thin, that wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up. That’s my particular sound.” It was there in “Blonde on Blonde” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” It was the sound of the street:
“That ethereal twilight light, you know. It’s the sound of the street with the sunrays, the sun shining down at a particular time, on a particular type of building. A particular type of people walking on a particular type of street. It’s an outdoor sound that drifts even into open windows that you can hear. The sound of bells and distant railroad trains and arguments in apartment buildings and the clinking of silverware and knives and forks and beating with leather straps. It’s all — it’s all there. Just lack of a jackhammer, you know.”
And in that moment, the combative inarticulate Dylan disappeared, and he spoke with all of the native eloquence of a Jack Kerouac.
Thus Red June proclaims their desire to travel the same road that Dylan did, which involves running with whatever creativity you’ve got, hoping that others will follow. And if the mass of humanity has any sense, they will follow.
So to answer the question initially posed: nothing really rhymes with Nebraska. But if you're Red June, then everything rhymes, everything is in tune.
Buy the CD. Play it. And you’ll know what I mean.