An Interview with Ron Pen
One of foremost experts in the field of American roots music, Ron Pen received his Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky in 1987, with a dissertation on the biography and works of the American balladeer and composer, John Jacob Niles. He has continued his research in the area of American vernacular music with an emphasis on the music and culture of the Southern Appalachian region. Publications include book reviews, articles, forewords, book chapters, encyclopedia entries, and documentary films focusing on topics such as shape note hymnody, early folk music collections, fiddle tunes, and traditional, country, and bluegrass musical styles. Ron was elected to the board of the Society for American Music and served as Vice President as well as both Program Chair (Madison, WI) and Local Arrangements Chair (Lexington, KY) for annual conferences. In addition, he served several terms as the book review editor for the journals American Music and Journal of the Society for American Music.
Currently, Ron is a Professor at the University of Kentucky where he also serves as Director of the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music.
Q: You’re an authority on American roots music and grew up in the age of vinyl. Do you feel that downloads and i-pods have killed the album?
Pen: There is always a moment of anticipation, suspense, and joy as one tears the plastic sheath off a new CD, opens the jewel case, pops the disc out of the restraining center fingers, and slips the recording into the sliding tray of the player. It is an unconscious ritual recreation of your favorite birthday present being unwrapped– a magical moment as living music emerges from inanimate machine. That pristine plastic disc suddenly sings in vivid aural hues. Oh sure, perhaps the suspense and joy is a little different in 2013, a little more muted, as the music is now merely a few mouse clicks and a download away with the instant gratification of iTunes. But still, the experience is pure enchantment as you and the music are conjoined.
Technology enables sound on your laptop, tablet, or smartphone almost instantly, but the personal connection to the artist becomes pale and distant without cover artwork, without liner notes, or even the comforting tactile feel of the disc and jewel case that are themselves faint echoes of the nostalgic vinyl LP experience. The CD is different, though.
The CD can be conceived as an organic whole in which all the music lives together in the same neighborhood. Each song in this community is invested with a specific role creating a narrative experience as one cut leads inevitably to the next. Like a train, there may be a “hit song” engine that drives the rest, but each car carries its own passengers and freight in which the sum of the whole is greater than its parts. The whole idea of a cloud technology digital library destroys the album concept and works to dissolve the unity of the CD. Tracks are sold for 98 cents each. Every song is an orphan. Cheap, quick, sound bytes trump carefully wrought unity.
Q: Is that what excites you about Switchback’s new album, that it is just that, an album?
Pen: Yes, exactly. Here in your hands, is the promise of something very different. Deliciously retro in its unity, wonderfully conceived as a whole, with a music that is nurtured by the sweet scent of Midwestern soil and inextricably linked to the fascinating characters that inhabit the heartland of America. Kanoka is an astonishing ramble through the heart of Americana soul, a love story redolent of Walt Whitman’s lyrical verse.
Q: Walt Whitman is high praise. What is it about Kanoka that makes you think of him?
Pen: Kanoka is unity. In fact, the fictional place name is nearly a palindrome; the album itself is a palindrome. The title track opens with the sound of a surging train wedded to the soulful whistle of Lloyd Maines’s steel guitar. The final track, “Bottom of the Bottle of Beer” trails off like a caboose coda in the distance graced with those same train track clacks and Maines’s steel rail wails. The circle is unbroken.
Switchback is very unusual in that the band consists of only two performers in both live performance and recording situations. Marty McCormack and Brian FitzGerald have forged an identity and shared vision over a twenty-five year relationship that has enabled them to enfold others in their music as an integrated extension of themselves. The presence of musician’s musicians, Lloyd Maines on pedal slide guitar and Howard Levy on harmonica, allows Switchback to draw upon the full soundscape of American life. Drummers Jim Hines and Nick Hirka as well as percussionist Keith Riker inject the pulse that is the heartland heartbeat.
Q: Can you “break down” Kanoka and describe how this album is presented?
Pen: Levy’s harp is woven into the band’s mix on four cuts, but more importantly, there are a pair of extraordinary solo interludes that punctuate the album. The first interlude is a jovial blues cowboy meditation on Western life that makes a seamless transition into the first sweet notes of Maines’s steel guitar that begin “Van Tassel.” The second interlude, a prelude to “Rocky Mountain Express,” dances merrily along its path to a graceful extended arpeggio that ends in a sweetly sustained final whistle tone. And then, from the distance, this is answered in the same key with the onrushing rhythm of the “Express.” This transition is a kinder, gentler nod to the scream as train whistle in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps.
Maines’s pedal steel percolates through Kanoka like the Mississippi embracing the heartlands. Crying into the high lonesome American night, poured into another honky tonk round, slipping along Highway 20, the sweet sigh of a waltz as a foil to the life’s bucking bronco in “Rope As I’m Riding,” a lyrical counterpoint to the vocals in “Wrong You Can Write,” the onomatopoeia of water through sand, or a sinister swirling cyclone. There is a little Lloyd Maines melodious fairy dust sprinkled liberally throughout, imbuing the album’s diversity with unity.
Q: What makes it in your opinion authentic American roots music?
Pen: Diversity and unity. The beauty of train travel is that you remain the same and your immediate surroundings remain the same, even as the scenery outside the window continually shifts. Switchback travels through the full range of American musical scenery, pausing to visit genres and musicians that have shaped our nation’s sonic history. There is more than a hint of George Jones country in “Pour Me.” “Rocky Mountain Express” rides the same rails as “Orange Blossom Special.” The specter of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” is conjured by “Wrong You Can Write.” The tight vocal harmonies of “Water Through Sand” or “Cigarette Butt” reference the country rock sound of the Byrds and Poco. There is even a hint of U2 and Bono in the anthemic vocals of “Ill Be Damned.” Costumes reveal more than they conceal. Though cloaked in various styles and influences, Switchback remains Switchback. Integrity and truth are enthroned in their music.
Q: A sonic ride across Americana sounds intriguing. In a phrase what would you tell a new listener to Switchback about Kanoka?
Pen: Kanoka surely will be characterized and marketed as Americana, but this album transcends that commercial branding formula. Kanoka is more than Americana—it is the sound of America itself.