Tim Lancaster: In Sepia (The New Traditional)
"MY NAME IS TIM LANCASTER AND I LIKE TO WORK."
That's the first thing the Huntington based troubadour proclaimed as I sat down and started my conversation with him and his long time producer Max Nolte at the legendary Loft studio in downtown Huntington. I'm not sure if it was declarative or a confession, but during our 2 hour conversation I kept thinking about that first statement over and over.
Just one listen to his new record "Stones, Rivers, and Trains" it becomes clear that he writes the kind of song you write after getting your hands dirty all day, and exhibits the sheer amount of craftsmanship it takes to write that kind of song. After hitting record on my recorder I got to experience a wholly unique, interesting character of utmost quality.
I first became aware of Tim after watching a video of a performance on the W.B. Walker Old Soul Radio Show performing "Cant You Hear The Sound", subsequently the fifth track on the new album. That video is Lancaster only accompanying himself on the bones (more on that later) and singing a song about a "town who got their power from the river but it was so close to the river it was wiped out by it". A cautionary tale of the thing that enriches you, may also destroy you. That kind of insight seems to be in short supply these days, and I had to know more about him. Luckily, I got to.
Tim Lancaster looks like a black and white photograph come to life with a of touch sepia. Everything about him conveys a bygone era. From his trademark hat, high lonesome voice, and style of songwriting, it all transports you to a simpler time that is miles away from social media and the similar distractions (more on that later).
The Florida native took the long way to the Mountain State. Initially attracted to Huntington by a friend, Lancaster landed here after stints as a sustainable logger in Vermont, working in agriculture in California, and "just scraping by" in Brooklyn.
But no matter where the road took him he ended up back in Huntington. Attracted by the tight knit music scene that has burgeoned over the last 5 to 10 years, Tim now says these mountains are "home". All that extensive traveling and working seems to have made Tim thoughtful and wise far beyond his 28 years, and one listen to his new record that becomes obvious.
Featuring the fantastic upright bass playing of Craig Burletic (of Tyler Childers' touring band), the angelic fiddle playing and singing of Linda Jean Stokely (of The Local Honeys), and the production of the aforementioned Max Nolte (also drummer for the elusive local band Sweatband) "Stones, Rivers, and Trains" is the culmination of Tim's stint as the Artist-in-Residence at the Harper's Ferry National Historic Park. A job he actually started June 20th 2016, West Virginia Day. (If you are a West Virginia native and don't know the story of Harper's Ferry, then you are the reason we still see the Confederate flag here, and you should never be allowed to eat at Tudor's Biscuit World ever again). His stay at the park included the study of the history of the area and that conflict, performing for the attending visitors, and was meant to conclude with recording an album based on his time, study, and experience there. It is a shining moment in our state's history and a beautiful part of our state that deserved the kind of reverence this record presents.
Playing guitar, banjo, fiddle and the bones, Tim masterfully weaves stories that invoke the time of John Brown's raid, and captures the landscape sonically. But wait. What are the bones you ask? Don’t worry, I did too. The bones are a percussive instrument most commonly cut from the rib bones of cattle. They are held between the fingers in one hand to where the arches of the two ribs are facing each other and the heavier end of the bone is on the bottom end. Various rhythms are produced by a twist of the wrist. The bones are one of the oldest, if not the oldest instrument in recorded history.
The fact that he took the time to learn such an antiquated and almost forgotten instrument is proof of a curious and probing mind. To be able to play an instrument that very few people even know about, much less do, and make great music with it makes that artist worthy of your interest, in my opinion.
The most irreverent song, one of my personal favorites, and the one producer Max jokingly refers to as the "single," is "Tomahawk Pipe". In this song Lancaster spins a satirical almost advertisement for a tool he discovered at the Lewis and Clark museum, which is also located in Harper's Ferry. Apparently the tomahawk pipe was commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson as a peace offering to whatever Native Americans Merriweather and Lewis would encounter on their trip. The silliness of sons of immigrants (Lewis and Clark) giving a gimmicky tool to the native population, two different things they've long before mastered out of necessity, can not be missed. It's akin to giving an Eskimo an Igloo cooler. "It's a pipe, a tomahawk, a tomahawk pipe." You can just imagine a slick TV presenter trying to sell that to someone who didn't need it.
When asked about what kind of promotion he would be doing in support of the new record was when the interview took a turn for the psychoanalytical. Tim is clearly uncomfortable with the kind of ruthless self-promotion that seems required to get ahead these days.
In an age of collecting Facebook likes and page views, Lancaster feels "Everybody has their own shit going on, the last thing they need is for me to be (saying) hey I'm doing this thing, because they're doing their thing, too." It's a fascinating statement. Especially when I know there are many people who would want to know about his thing. Here is an artist sitting on a mountain of talent and great songs, who doesn’t want to impose. It's a refreshing perspective. I'm not sure if he's right, but I do know he finds working on his craft is more important than time spent on Facebook invites. It seems that chasing the brass ring is less interesting for him than living an interesting unfettered life, exploring the world around him then documenting that in song. When I suggested that he was a man out of time, he mysteriously dead panned "I'm here when I need to be". I don't know if he's a genius for not wanting to play the game or crazy for not trying to push for an audience that he clearly deserves. I think either way he will be successful.
The penultimate track is "My Dear Wife, Children, Everyone" which lyrics are entirely compiled from seven letters composed to his wife by John Brown during his incarceration following the Harper's Ferry Raid. After an excellent suggestion from a friend, Tim set out to humanize a historical figure long only known as an abolitionist martyr. He tried to find the romantic side of John Brown, and the results are god damned beautiful. Because of his tenure at the national park, Lancaster was privy to the original hand written letters and from those wrote a song about a man confessing to his beloved the terrible thing he had to do to right an even worse wrong. It's a heartbreaking existential recitation reported perfectly by Tim. Once he ends the song with the lines "Do not grieve, do not grieve" the listener has little choice but to do so.
There is nothing about this record, or artist for that matter, that is contrived or preconceived.
Influenced by old folk acts like Pete Seeger, John Hartford, and Doc Watson any preconception would not lead you down that less than lucrative road. It would be easy on first listen to compare him to that era, but to me these songs feel older than that.
This music sounds like the songs you'd hear at a Civil War encampment or after a long days labor in the fields. It's music that sounds like the writer is long dead and forgotten so authorship is just credited as "Traditional". But it's completely Tim Lancaster, continuing that tradition like it's his job to do so.
"My Dear Wife, Children, Everyone"
Tim Lancaster's new record "Stones, Rivers, and Trains" will be available on iTunes, Spotify, and the like July 13th, as well as available at his live shows.