John Craigie
Photo: Bobby Cochran / Courtesy of the artist

John Craigie Preaches Up at the ‘Pagan Church’

Combined with TK & The Holy Know Nothings, Americana/folk artist John Craigie finds that new kind of redemption on Pagan Church.

Pagan Church
John Craigie
Zabriskie Point
26 January 2024

Apologizes first to John Craigie for being late to what he’s been up to. I’m not sure how my various machines and I have missed him. He’s been doing it for years, been out on tour with Todd Snider and Jack Johnson, and played sets at every festival that you can think of. But I heard him this year singing “Laurie Rolled Me a J” while I was riding in the backseat, coming down a mountain west of Denver. After further listening, it turns out all of Craigie’s songs are made of something truly ineffable.

His latest, Pagan Church, isn’t just an announcement of new songs for Craigie; it’s an affirmation that he is a preeminent songwriter working in the true storyteller tradition. His songs are full of real folks, topical songs written and sung into the Internet Age, built out of effortless humor and reverent, sacred lines. So far, Craigie’s nine albums have alternated between full band and solo albums, and this one falls into the complete band category. Written and performed with rising Portland-based mystic country rockers TK & The Holy Know Nothings, John Craigie and company recorded the album in an old schoolhouse that the Holy Know-Nothings have converted into their headquarters and studio near Portland.

Pagan Church opens with the barroom crawler “Damn My Love”, and it’s immediately clear that Craigie is just tickled pink to be playing with this band and to be singing with Taylor Kingman, the namesake TK in TK & The Holy Know Nothings.

In “California Sober”, Craigie takes the bones of an old-fashioned early Grateful Dead-era blues and turns it into a millennial zen stoner shuffle. He saves his best affirmations for the final lines of every verse, chief among them, “I see a black-haired woman every time I close my eyes” and “Mary never asked Jesus to get a job.” But on the very last one, he goes straight to the source:

I lay a busted harmonica out on Pigpen’s grave
I lay a busted harmonica out on Pigpen’s grave
Cure my Oakland sadness on the shores of Monterrey

Throughout Pagan Church, the band (drummer Tyler Thompson and multi-instrumentalists Jay Cobb Anderson, Lewi Longmire, and Sydney Nash) catch and cradle Craigie’s mellow Oregon-by-Los Angeles drawl. Their range and feel are captured best on the highway jubilant organ and brass sections of “Walking Guilty” and “Viking Sex”. (The latter sounds rather like a campfire version of “Beer For My Horses”, and it’s magnificent.) The first Craigie stone-cold strummer fittingly comes with the best singing on the whole album: the close harmony of John Craigie and Jay Cobb Anderson. They hold a lot of old wisdom in their voices and deliver their best work on the album.

There’s a safe amount of swagger on both “Good to You” and “Judas”, the Ray Wylie Hubbard moment destined to emerge from this collaboration eventually. This is as close to strutting as John Craigie gets. “I got a song with your wife’s name in it,” he begins, winding up at that most famous “Judas”: the one thrown at Bob Dylan once at the Royal Albert Hall.

In another timeline, there’d be plenty of radio play for Pagan Church one anthem: the pure pop country rocker “While I’m Down”. This one really grooves, and they all seem to know it. All the ingredients are in there. There’s a chugging guitar riff held together by a heavy, gluey bass and triumphant keys. Combined with sincere philosophies from Craigie’s rambling life, what results is this three-and-a-half-minute genuine hit in a better timeline. Craigie decides to close the record with the title track, and it’s a fittingly melancholic farewell, full of loss and hallways and guns—that old American nightmare. Craigie’s genuinely poignant here, hell, maybe even a little spiritual. God forbid.

By forming a union with TK & The Holy Know Nothings, John Craigie finds some of that new kind of redemption in Pagan Church. Here’s hoping they all will hold another service soon. Or better yet, they will take this whole highway tent revival out the first chance it gets.

RATING 8 / 10