Punk rockers are supposed to be brash and immature teens with spiked hair and army boots. Greg Graffin, the modestly dressed 42-year-old lead singer of punk rock legends Bad Religion, defies all these conventions. When not putting out 13 studio albums with Bad Religion or touring worldwide over the past 25 years, Graffin has found the time to earn a masters degree in geology as well as a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology. In 1997, he further diversified his career with a solo album under the pseudonym American Lesion, a sorrowful piano and acoustic-based offering written during the breakup of his marriage.
American Lesion laid the groundwork for Graffin’s 2006’s Cold as Clay, an old timey folk album featuring backup banjo, harmonica, piano, and guitar, from members of The Weakerthans and old-time musicians. Recorded in just seven days, the disc features five original compositions from Graffin, as well as six traditional American folk songs from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. The traditional songs are performed with old time arrangements and an earnestness that suggests a group of musicians playing around a campfire or on a country porch. Much of the authenticity comes from the production and direction of producer Brett Gurewitz, president of Epitaph Records and former co-creative force of Bad Religion. Gurewitz instructed the musicians to play “knee to knee in a circle”, and did an excellent job of providing stripped down but well crafted production, creating a hi-fi recording that sounds like 19th century musicians playing live.
The six traditional tracks feature reflective and mournful songs from the slow murder ballad, “Omie Wise”, to the banjo stomp of “California Cotton Fields”. The best of the old-timers is “Talk about Suffering” in which the guitar and banjo interplay perfectly compliments the plaintive intertwining vocals of Greg Graffin and the harmony of Julie Holland. Julie’s breezy and folksy harmony appears again on the strong closer, “One More Hill”, in which the two singers caution: “There’s one more hill, just one more hill, there’s always a hill left to climb / If you think you’ve reached the top of the world the hill of judgement is left to climb.”
The originals are a more modern affair, adding electric guitars and drums. Graffin correctly pins his influences for the songs in the liner notes, stating the songs were inspired by his “love for country rock in the vein of Gram Parsons, The Band, and Neil Young.” The album begins with one of the stronger of the half dozen tracks, “Don’t Be Afraid to Run”, a country rock ballad complete with carefully placed banjo, harmonica, and arena rock guitar riffs. Lyrically, Greg Graffin weds the non-comfority from his punk past with dust bowl imagery as he implores his “darlin” to leave her home town which has become corrupt: “Down in the holler there’s a thriving town, a treasure trove that makes the world go ‘round / When the city barons bring their legal papers and guns / Oh Darlin’ don’t be afraid to run.”
Graffin mixes modernity and antiquity in his lyrics, just as he places his compositions next to traditional songs, in an attempt to show that his long music career has been informed by less than obvious influences. His hopes are that the album will pass the tradition of American songwriting on to future generations, long after he is buried and as “cold as the clay.” Whether these lofty goals are accomplished by the project is uncertain. One thing, however, is definite; Graffin’s distinctive vocals from his Bad Religion days transfer remarkably well into folk and country music. This album is worth a listen, not just for the novelty, but for the musicianship, as well.