Americana's S.G. Goodman Discusses Activism and Changing Minds in the Rural South
Folk rocker S.G. Goodman discusses changing hearts and minds in the rural American South, all while releasing her debut album in the middle of a global pandemic. Goodman is a rising artist to watch.
Old Time Feeling
17 July 2020
When I called S.G. Goodman on FaceTime, the first thing I noticed was how calm she appeared on her back porch in a lawn chair, surrounded by lush greenery. As she called for her dog, Howard, I told her I was jealous: my "backyard" in Philadelphia is really a "backslab" of concrete. "I've got a lot of friends in New York City and I feel very lucky," she said. "No one thought it was a good idea to live in a small town until now."
Goodman lives in Murray, Kentucky, a small college town in the western part of the state. Since the start of the global coronavirus pandemic, she'd been keeping to herself, aside from picking up groceries for her friend and mentor, the writer Dale Ray Phillips. "He's the greatest living Southern writer," she told me. Earlier that morning, he'd been looking over one of her poems. "He's tearing it apart," she said with a laugh.
It was 27 May, and Goodman's cool demeanor was a stark contrast to the outside world. The morning before our conversation, COVID-19 deaths in the US had reached the grim milestone of 100,000. Two days earlier, George Floyd was brutally murdered by Minneapolis police. That's not to say that she was ignoring the news. If there's a unifying theme for her debut album, Old Time Feeling, it's that systemic change begins wherever you find yourself.
For Goodman, that means staying in the country, even if it'd be more convenient -- as a gay woman, as an artist, as an outspoken progressive -- to escape to an urban center. For Old Time Feeling's co-producer Jim James, that's part of what makes Goodman's songs so compelling. "I think she could play an important role in the healing we need to see happen right now," he said. "She's living proof that we can be whoever we want to be, no matter where we come from."
So it only makes sense that when I catch up with her again in mid-June, she tells me she's "masked up" to attend protests in Murray against police brutality. "Especially in a small community, it's really important for the world to see people from all walks of life show up right now," she said. When we talked about the changing dynamics of the Democratic primary race in her state and the protests' calls for accountability in the murder of Breonna Taylor, I realized that her cool demeanor wasn't a sign of detachment; it was the result of a tireless optimism. Despite all the turbulence, she was calmed by the possibility of the future: things were changing.
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So how's your quarantine been overall?
Well, I live alone. And I'm taking care of an older friend of mine. So I've been very, very strict about -- you know, maybe I'll go to a friend's house and sit in the yard, but I do that rarely 'cause if this old man got it, I would blame myself. I'm keeping myself safe to go to the grocery store -- which is possibly dangerous -- but it's been a wild time. I mean, I'm pretty good with solitude but I'm finding what my limits are. I think around the three-month mark I've kinda hit it, you know?
That's probably a healthy realization.
For sure. It's odd, you know, I've been trying to be productive -- whatever that means. But also, if you're writing from experience ... I mean, I don't wanna write about this. It's a death sentence.
I wonder how art about this pandemic will be taken. Is it going to be seen as cheap and exploitative? Is it inevitable? Is it authentic?
My hope is there's a lot more political music afterward. That's just commentary on the times and what we witnessed. It's hard to say. It would all depend on what they said. I would say, more or less, what would be taking advantage of the situation would be putting out a song about death right now. [laughs]
The Toby Keiths and the Alan Jacksons on 9/11 kind of style. That might be a little more obvious. I think if they call the album COVID-19 we've got a problem. The only person who could get away with that would be Neil Young.
That's probably already recorded.
So what's it look like in Murray right now? Are you the outlier in that you're completely shut down? I know that Kentucky is moving back to being open, right?
Yes, we are. The governor, Andy Beshear, has done an excellent job so far as taking care of citizens. And I don't necessarily agree with -- I understand the complexity of people literally running out of money. There's gonna be a lot of businesses that will no longer be there this time next year. I've even seen them shut down already. But I don't know that you heard that there was an effigy hung of our governor, which was insane because he is opening the economy. In no way is that acceptable, at any point in this, but just the fact that it's after he's opened churches and already told people we're going to start opening things, it makes no sense. But he handled it really well, and it's really brave of him, the fact that he brought it back home. I don't know that you've read his speech, but he was like: you did that on the other side of the window where I raise my children. So, it's a weird time.
As far as Murray goes, as far as how people are handling it, I think it's the same as it is most places where there's a lot of people who just don't believe this. I've come to realize that with media we are really living in different realities. For me, I was in New York at the beginning of February. [Dale Ray Phillips], he's an NPR aficionado, so he told me about this in December and was like: "You need to be careful when you're touring." So in February when I went to New York there were already reported cases in Manhattan. That's where we were, so me and the boys took as many precautions as we could and tried to restrict ourselves from going out to the other boroughs. At that time we didn't really understand, so we were pumping ourselves with Vitamin C and echinacea. [laughs] But that's what I don't understand. I got back into town from tour in early March, around the 9th or 10th. And when my tours were called off, me and [Phillips] we loaded up on groceries 'cause I said, "It's about to be a thing." And when the President got on air and said this was real, there wasn't anything on the shelves in this town.
That was definitely the case here.
What it made me realize is that's what it took for a lot of people to think it was real. And that was alarming to me because I thought it was real for months. I mean, we're in a global world. How do you not know what's going on in Italy or China? It's disturbing how we are all living in different realities based on what algorithms our phones use to give us the news.
I wonder if that's only become more potent now that we're not interacting with people in the way that we used to.
Imagine the data they've collected. Especially with new apps. Are all of our Zoom calls monitored? I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but these things are real. Algorithms are the main cause of these separate realities. I'm all about a free internet, but I could live without my phone knowing that I've been looking at linen sheets, you know? ... I can't remember what study did this, but let's say that I was super conservative, you were a liberal, and we had a moderate friend. If we were right beside each other and put in the President's name a different thing would come up for each of us.
Photo: Meredith Truax / Courtesy of Verve Forecast
And that speaks to the data you're talking about, based on data mining and algorithms. But I think, too, that we also have social echo chambers in addition to the technological ones. You're being fed things that are going to agree with you or maybe push you further to one polar end, but with things shut down it also means you're not having those interactions with people outside of your own experience or immediate circle.
Exactly. I had a friend ask me, "How is it down there?" And I said, "I don't know, I'm living in the liberal choir." [laughs] I'm definitely not going up to people who aren't wearing masks, you know? I'm not stopping by the barbecue next door. Luckily for me, I do have close friends and family members who have very different views. So I have a built-in system of hearing different sides. I've realized a lot of people don't.
In "Old Time Feeling", you comment on that. I think it's interesting to hear that issue, which others have commented on, but you're taking what I feel is a different stance: that it's convenient to get away from what you may think is wrong, but it's important that you stay within that and dialogue. And I know that's obviously something people have called for nationally, but I think specifically related to literal geography it's a novel take. And you're living it by staying in Murray rather than moving to, say, New York, which would in theory be beneficial for your career. It'd make touring a lot easier. But this was written before the pandemic. So now that the separate realities are all the more real, I wonder how we're supposed to navigate that. How do you tap into someone's reality without them thinking you're trying to shatter it?
I think [it's about] learning how to ask the right questions. There's a lot of things to consider when you're putting yourself in a position to question someone's experience and reality. And I want to say that I wholeheartedly understand why people do jump ship. Some people's physical appearance makes them unsafe. Sometimes they're living with a family who's emotionally abusive. I get that. And I would highly encourage those people to seek safer waters.
I don't want to really harp on this, but I was a philosophy major in college and one thing that really hit home with me was how we justify things. I was taking an Epistemology class and I realized all justification comes from first-hand experience. So I think that one of the most important things you can do is provide people with things they can relate to, like a person they know. Let's say we're talking about social benefits. I've received them at a time when I was on [Medicaid]. I was in a car accident and working lawn care. I mean, just my ambulance ride, I would still be paying for that. It was a real thing for me; I benefited from it. And a lot of people wouldn't have looked at me at the time and thought a white girl whose rental house is pretty nice and is working was benefiting from something as simple as the right to healthcare. And I did.
So when I'm talking to family members who don't align themselves with those policies, it's helpful to use real-life examples to help someone who they wouldn't have thought it would. I'm not the face of the people they think are taking advantage of those systems. And I don't believe that me saying that is threatening to them. But that's my privilege, too. I think a lot of times confronting people's different ideas about the world is being willing to openly talk about your own privilege in front of people, especially in regards to healthcare and social services. Because even though at the time I had a college degree I was in poverty -- I probably almost still am.
The real war we're having is one for the linguist. To understand someone's definition of a thing. My definition of "socialism" isn't the same as some of my family members or close friends. So if we're talking about "socialism" we're not even talking about the same thing. So it's trying to hone in on each other's understanding of those concepts before you can even have a conversation with them.
It sounds, too, like it's about being open to a conversation rather than explaining something to someone.
Exactly. And that's where it's like ... I feel if I were to have a conversation about "socialism" I wouldn't use that word. I would talk about how it's actually implemented.
And how maybe they already benefit from it.
Absolutely. And even issues when you're talking about ... like people who are "poor". "Poor" is a great example. In the town I grew up in, which is one of the poorest counties in Kentucky -- Fulton County on the Mississippi River -- [the people] who would be considered "rich" would be "poor" in Louisville. You know what I mean? But they think of themselves as having money, so when these issues of taxation come up and they hear the words "middle class" they identify even though on a national scale they're not even in that bracket.
Which is fascinating!
Yeah, so how do you talk to a person about that? It's weird because, like I said, since they identify with those words -- like, "upper middle class" -- when it comes to political issues they're not reading that legislation as if it applies to them.
This seems to touch on one of the other issues that comes up on your record: pitting the poor against the poor. Especially thinking of it in terms of language, it seems to be about using broad euphemisms to turn people against their neighbors, turn people against maybe even their best interests.
Exactly. We're seeing it in real-time right now with this extra $600 a week. A very close friend of mine who I love dearly probably made $40,000 a year before he lost his job. Well, in the town he lives in that is do-able for a single person. He can own a house and be in a lot of credit card debt like a lot of other Americans and still get by…. He would say he doesn't need the extra $600 and "What's the purpose of it?" And he doesn't agree with everyone else getting it. Why is that your interpretation of what's happening? Why isn't it that you should've been getting that amount of money the whole time? If that's what the government really feels that that's what it's gonna take for you to get through this time in life, why do you look at it that way? ... "The poor against the poor" is just an idea of where we're focusing our anger and what we're missing in doing it that way.
Based on what you said earlier, it's kind of perversely comforting sometimes to dig into those sources provided by our algorithms that explain things away. And those sources for someone on the right may be that it's your neighbor who's taking advantage of things. For someone on the left, it may be that all of these people who aren't listening to doctors are the real problem with the pandemic. It doesn't get us anywhere, it just burrows us further.
We saw that at the highest level of our government very shortly after this current administration was trying to take charge [of the pandemic]. He quickly put the responsibility on the states. That, in my interpretation, is to have the blame and the responsibility put on the governors and the state officials and not the federal government. That's just one more example of presenting it to the people so they have someone to blame rather than the actual causes. It's crazy.
So, basically how my pandemic has been going is I've been in a political spiral this whole time. Not to divert too much from the conversation, but we have the biggest selection in the nation this year, in my opinion. Mitch McConnell is up for re-election in my state. And I understand a lot of people's, and I'm including my own, frustration with our choices with the presidential election and the messages we're wanting to send. But now, more than ever, as a nation we have to understand how important it is to be involved in the other state's elections, too. Everyone in this nation should be focused on getting Mitch McConnell out of Kentucky. Every person. Because it doesn't matter if Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden or even if Trump is president because Mitch McConnell is the hands and feet. He's the door. So, what happens in November as far as our President goes doesn't matter if Kentuckians don't get behind getting him out.
The record deals with some of these themes, though it's not necessarily protest music. But it's definitely loaded with politics. As a writer, is that something you're intending to do? Is that besides the point?
I've never been one to be able to say, "Okay I'm going to sit down and write a song about this theme." It's just my experience and what came to me in the moment. I'm just capturing what's happening in my life and around me. I'm not scared to write those songs, but I don't think it's something I do intentionally. What I say is intentional, once it starts coming out. But "Old Time Feeling" really started with me managing an all-organic juice bar in Murray, Kentucky ... and that didn't go over super well. It appealed to the upper class in town cause they're the only ones who can afford to spend eight dollars on a drink. I was the person who ordered the food and there I was ordering apples from Michigan and organic pineapples from Hawaii. And I thought, "This isn't really sustainable or green. My dad's a farmer, we have some of the most fertile ground in the country. Why's what we're growing soybeans and corn?" We could grow the hell out of some organic shit! [laughs]
But then again not really. I was on the road some, touring a little bit, and poor. And what can you afford? You can afford gas station food. And it just started hitting me. It's important to supply Murray with good plain food, but it's not accessible for most of the people here. So I just started thinking about the food that is accessible to us. Velveeta.
People probably wouldn't have imagined that'd be the first line I came up with -- "gas station delicacies" -- but that's what sparked the commentary on what I was seeing in the South at that moment. And people judge Southerners for that: our cuisine, baloney, and cheese. For being friends of coal, which I'm not, but these are very complex issues. They're socio-economic things that are easier to judge without really understanding the nuts and bolts of them.
It's a lot easier to tweet about changing those things rather than actually following through.
Exactly. Just like me saying we should grow organic food on our property or whatever -- not really! You can't. It's impossible with our laws and organic requirements. It would take a whole county of farmers saying, "We're gonna let our lands sit vacate for seven or eight years and no one around is allowed to go against us." That's not do-able.
I feel like the landscape of popular music has shifted in the past few years, or maybe even in the last decade, so that there's more than one definition of a country artist. And you can see that on the large scale with someone like Sturgill Simpson, or Kacey Musgraves, or Jason Isbell, where they're not necessarily confined by the genre in a way they would've been 15 years ago. I don't know if that's something you've felt in your own experience -- you're a Southern artist who doesn't necessarily play country music but is somewhat indebted to that tradition. Is there any thought of where you fit in?
I would say most people assume I'm a country artist listening to how I talk or reading that I'm from Kentucky. It's like: are My Morning Jacket country because they have pedal steel in their songs sometimes? It's hard to say, and I don't ever really get worked up about how people categorize me because it's just not in my control. They need to make generalizations; they need black and white. What am I going to do? "No, I'm indie!" Who cares? When I write a song, my only goal is for you to walk away remembering it. So I don't care where that falls. But if you remember my song, then I've done my job. Maybe I could be in a cooler genre, whatever that is, and write some obscure track that doesn't fit into a formula ... but if you can't remember it, what was the point?
Photo: Courtesy of High Road Touring