Vincent Neil Emerson writes and performs songs about hard times without being bitter. Life experiences have shown his protagonists that things can be tough. They may nostalgically yearn for home, but they were born to ramble. (“I’ve been looking for a home that I just could not find,” he sings in the title song.) His narrators are always on the road. Emerson sings in a plain voice with a slight twang. There is a slight dustiness to his vocals that suggests his mind is not always clear. His characters have to squint backward to see what they have learned. What has not killed them may have made them stronger—at first, but as they get older, they realize that what has not killed them has just caused them pain. Like Emerson’s New England transcendentalist namesake, this Westerner has become self-reliant.
Perhaps because Emerson comes from impoverished East Texas, was raised by a single mother, or comes from a Choctaw-Apache background, or all three. He has an independent streak. His characters are rootless and disconnected from the places where they live. Consider “The Man From Uvalde” about the mass shooting of children at school while the police stand by and wait. Over a snarling guitar, the singer doesn’t take a stand. The facts themselves point to the fraudulence of easy solutions. Emerson implies this could happen anywhere, and the killers, victims, and bystanders could be anyone.
That said, place is essential to Emerson. His songs have titles that allude to specific geographic locations, such as “I’ll Meet You in Montana” and “On the Banks of the Old Guadalupe”, and landscapes like “Clover on the Hillside” and “Blackland Prairies”. His rambling protagonists mark their time by the locales where they have lived rather than the people they have known.
Emerson refers specifically to his Native American background in “Little Wolf’s Invincible Yellow Medicine Paint”, which takes its subject from the Western tale about a medicine man who provided his tribe with a special paint that would make them invincible in the war against European settlers. Emerson gives his tale of vengeance a warrior’s power. “I drink my own blood / I make the thunder thud / I writhe in the mud / And I’m prayin’ for the flood,” he sings. However, the listener knows the actual story of what happened: the genocide of the indigenous people. Like old Western movies, the happy ending is ambiguous at best.
A truer picture can be gleaned from Emerson’s rendition of “Cod’ine”, written and made famous by Buffy Sainte-Marie in 1964. Despite the recent controversy concerning Sainte-Marie’s history, she is the most important and recognized Native American activist musician. The protagonist of the song lives a life of addiction. He is without hope, and his situation is emblematic of the fate of too many Native Americans who have suffered under the rule of colonialism.
Shooter Jennings produced this record and gave a rock and roll edge to the dozen tracks that, in other hands, could be country western tunes. While Jennings lets the steel guitar and other instruments wail, he intermittently adds rough edges. Emerson takes advantage of this by keeping his voice at an even keel. This accentuates the harshness of his character’s experiences. He’s not complaining. Emerson sounds like he just wants to keep on moving on. No doubt this will compel listeners to play the record on repeat because it doesn’t really end as much as just stops.