Scott Ballew 2024
Photo: IVPR

Scott Ballew Offers a Metaphysical View of Life on ‘Rio Bravo’

Scott Ballew’s metaphysical life lessons entertain us like a good movie with a cliffhanger ending. One doesn’t know what happens next—and that is the point.

Rio Bravo
Scott Ballew
La Honda Records
28 March 2024

Film buffs consider the movie Rio Bravo a modern classic. The Howard Hawks-directed 1959 Western features the iconic John Wayne as a sheriff aided by a drunken deputy (Dean Martin), kid gunslinger (Ricky Nelson), and old codger (Walter Brennan) defending a town against vicious outlaws. In the Cold War era film, the protagonists symbolically represent the American vision of its role as the world’s fair-minded peacekeeper.

The epic flick features Nelson sweetly singing the lonesome cowboy ballad “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me” and Martin tunefully crooning the old folk song “Cindy”. There are several reasons why John Wayne and Walter Brennan, both of whom had hit records (America, Why I Love Her, “Old Rivers”), did not sing in Rio Bravo. The melodic voices of Nelson and Martin expressed the innocence and beauty of the American experience. The gruff voices of Wayne and Brennan would suggest something more complicated and murkier. There is nothing on the craggy-voiced Scott Ballew’s new album, Rio Bravo, that would fit in the film for similar reasons.

Scott Ballew’s Rio Bravo reflects the current meta-view of the past and present. America and the West are not so virtuous. He has a rough voice that doesn’t always stay in tune. His lyrics offer more complicated myths than the film’s simple lessons of good versus evil. The title song proposes a more tragic vision where the difference between wrong and right isn’t so clear. The cut ends on a discordant note, both audibly and contextually. The kids are hungry, the TV is too loud, and it’s too late to tell a friend what needs to be said.

Ballew’s music most resembles the work of Terry Allen, whom he cites as an inspiration and with whom he has worked in the past. The songs on Rio Bravo meander through surreal Texas landscapes where the silly and the serious meet in the world of art and legend. Their teetering constructions purposely elude clear definitions. Meanings are inferred rather than directly expressed.

In songs like “True Love Can’t Surf” and “All That is Sacred”, Scott Ballew makes bold statements only to show their inherent falsity—or multiple meanings. He begins the album with the headscratcher: “People they don’t change / It’s like hugging a crashing wave.” He mixes metaphors in a wobbly voice with tuneless accompaniment that suggests the uncertainty of the statement. One can’t hug a crashing wave any more than people can change—does that mean they can or can’t? The koan-like lyrics seem somewhere between profound and nonsensical. “The old things that die are born unafraid,” he sings. The connections between the two halves of the sentence deliberately twist on themselves as if something more is being said. But the implication is ephemeral. Do we die afraid? Ballew’s not telling, not out of stubbornness but because he doesn’t know.

The charm of Rio Bravo relies on Ballew’s zingers, like the ones cited above. He compares the search for love to the “Suicide Squeeze” maneuver in baseball; the search for god is like changing seats in an airplane before it crashes and offers other bits of wisdom to reveal our shared confusion. He uses humor to make his points about the absurdity of the serious existential questions that plague us. Ballew understands that only death will tell us what life is about, and then it’s too late to do anything. Now that is funny! “I’d rather be sentimental than cynical,” he confesses on the eight-plus minute opus, “A Funny Masterpiece”. That schmaltziness endows his humor with heart.

In the movie Rio Bravo, the good guys win because they are the good guys. In the record, Rio Bravo, the moral of the stories is not so clear. We live, we struggle, we waste time looking for an answer and get wasted while waiting; a Mobius Strip of birth, death, and whatever else there is. “Find religion if you believe in hell / Find god if you have already been there,” he sings on the final track, the eight-plus minute opus “A Funny Masterpiece”. Scott Ballew’s metaphysical life lessons entertain us like a good movie with a cliffhanger ending. One doesn’t know what happens next—and that is the point.

RATING 7 / 10