Spare Songs From a Diminished Land


An impetus is what drives an action, and this is what is provided in the present context.

When I feel like listening to music, I head to the shelf that holds my CDs and contemplate the options. I look at the spines and think about which one I could listen to.

Nonetheless, my last thought is always the same: why would I choose any other option, when I could just listen to Souled American?

Then, I take a few steps across the room, and select between Fe, Flubber, Around the Horn, Sonny, Frozen, and Notes Campfire.

My stereo is home to a distinct row of albums, which I carefully select from depending on my current and desired mood.

The choice is almost always the same: Souled American. This has been the case ever since my friend Jeremy generously gifted me the first four albums last August.

Listening to this music has become an integral part of my day, as I dedicate multiple hours to it, playing it again and again.

I’m not convinced that I have a fondness for them.


The tunes produced by Souled American are not usually considered enjoyable.

John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats expressed his experience of hearing their second album’s first song, “It was sort of irksome, albeit entrancing.”

The music is not necessarily jubilant. Darnielle remarked that there is “a type of cosmic grief to it.” The music does not feature any impressive technical elements.

Darnielle labeled it as “enormous, droning notes from the upright bass and lone syllables, accompanied by guitar riffs with heavy reverberation.”

The music will not make one want to dance, sing, or do any silly air-guitar stunts. It holds to music’s primary purpose: to make one listen intently and endlessly, mesmerized and uncertain.

Demonstrative Evidence

It is clear that evidence is necessary to make a point. This evidence can come in many forms and is often referred to as demonstrative evidence.

Such evidence can be used to prove facts or theories in a variety of settings.

Souled American’s journey has been one of decline – originally consisting of four members when they formed in 1986, the band has dwindled over the years.

Chris Grigoroff and Joe Adducci both sang and wrote songs whilst Scott Tuma added guitar to the mix.

However, Tuma left before their last album was released and Jamey Barnard departed after their third album to focus on art and family.

Grigoroff, Adducci, Tuma, and Barnard released three albums in a three-year period, with Fe in 1988, Flubber in 1989 and Around the Horn in 1990.

After Barnard’s departure, their fourth album Sonny was released in 1992, primarily overseas, and all four albums went out of print but have been reissued by tUMULt in two volumes as Framed.

Subsequently, the band made two more albums with the assistance of Scott Lucas on drums for some of the tracks. Frozen was released in 1994 and Notes Campfire in 1997, before Tuma left the group.

Both albums are now out of print. In 1999, Adducci and Grigoroff moved to Charleston, Illinois to start work on a new album, which, nine years later, remains unfinished.

In the meantime, two tracks have been released – one in 2002 on a Kris Kristofferson tribute album, and the other in 2006 on the fourth issue of Yeti.

Souled American is now down to two, but their existence is still tangible.

As proof, they played two gigs last summer – one at the Swing Station in La Porte, Colorado, and one at the Bear Tree Tavern in Centennial, Wyoming.

This wasn’t a tour or even a series of hometown shows – it was a long journey from their home near Charleston that involved driving at least a day each way to small towns in sparsely populated parts of the West.

Possessing creative attributes of a real object

When they reach their destination, I envision them playing the kind of set they are renowned for. There they were, two men with long hair and shades adorning their faces, situated on a dimly lit stage.

The taller and thinner one was strumming a spasmodic, halting guitar and the other, not as tall and thin, was thumping a torpid, thunderous bass. Together and apart, they were crooning dismal lyrics with strained and tortured voices.

Gradually, people began to filter out. The musicians were hushed in the spacious void between songs, except when asking for someone to make the room darker.

They wore their sunglasses throughout. More people began to leave the Swing Station and the Beartree Tavern and wander out into the La Porte or Centennial night. The band seemed to not be aware.

When the audience carried chairs from a corner stack and took their place in front of the stage, Grigoroff, like he was quoted in Rolling Stone back in 1999, said, “We have a living room feel going on here. I can appreciate that.”

Estimating the depth of the bass sound

The depth at which bass is audible remains a point of contention.

Julie of Tiny Mix Tapes has approximated that Adducci’s bass was recorded from a far distance, and Jeff Stark of SF Weekly suggested it was as if the bass was separated by five fathoms of river water.

According to Andee Connors, the founder of tUMULt who rereleased their first four albums, the bass has a “bubbly and underwater” sound to it.

It doesn’t matter how far it is away, as it is deep and distant, but placed at the top of the mix. This sound is produced by a six-string instrument that is played with an unique two-finger method.

The result of mixing country-folk guitar with another genre is akin to playing the Anthology of American Folk Music in your room while the neighbor upstairs has their reggae playing at full volume–the bass resonates through the floor, eerily syncing up with the same tempo as if car indicators had miraculously coordinated in their flashing.

The bass used to be one way, but now that only two players are left, it is altering.

The Disappearance of Musical Instruments

The disappearance of musical instruments is something that has been felt by many in the music industry.

This loss has been felt in various ways, from the inability to purchase certain instruments to the lack of availability of certain parts. This is something that has been felt by musicians of all kinds, from professional to amateur.

The ramifications of this loss can be seen in the industry, from the difficulty of acquiring certain instruments to the decline of certain music genres.

Ultimately, this loss of instruments is something that has had a large impact on the music industry.

At the beginning, it was not only the bass that was fading away. The drums, too, had begun to go missing. Barnard was present in the first three albums, not always consistently.

He would often appear to strike a cymbal or brush a snare, but then he would disappear just as quickly. On Sonny, Frozen, and Notes Campfire, the drummer was gone for good.

Scott Lucas was brought in but he was even less present. Now, the drums were gone completely. Despite this, a simple rhythm still remained in the songs and a toe could tap to it, albeit slowly.

According to the saying, drums “lay the foundation.” These songs, without such a foundation, are like shacks. They may be shambling and weak, but they still provide shelter.

Though two guitars remain, Grigoroff and Adducci will use them to create a unique sound.

They pluck strings and sustain the notes, and in some cases, strum their instruments to create a frail, spidery sound.

Over time, the sound has evolved, from the days when the guitar was unamplified, providing the musical backdrop to the voice.

Still, the sound is, in a way, propulsive, allowing the necessary words to be uttered.

Not to be confused with a simile

The vocalizations. Or better yet, the vocalizations. They come in pairs, both ernest and strained. One is higher-pitched. The other is deeper.

Both are fragile and resolute. They sound like they have something crucial to express but are uncertain if they ought to be expressing it.

Your mind cannot quite figure out what the low and concerned voices are singing.

Chris Grigoroff states that when he and Joe collaborated, they desired to incorporate a portion of country music, due to the fact that this is the genre they both belonged to.

In addition, they both enjoyed reggae and R&B, and thus combined these elements to create something unique.

The outcome is this: the music of Souled American is like a combination of Bob Marley and Hank Williams if they had taken morphine and were playing their saddest tunes together.

This is not an ill-composed metaphor: it is the topic of their song “Marleyphine Hank”. The lyrics are simply “Marleyphine Hank” and repeated six times in a chorus.

It is almost as if it were a chant. The song carries a deep sadness.

Music that’s being performed

Their repertoire includes renditions of John Prine’s, John Fahey’s, George Jones’, Hal Bynum’s, Hank Williams’, Merle Travis’, the Louvin Brothers’, Little Feat’s, and many other musicians’ songs.

Furthermore, they play pieces composed by Vicki Adducci, the bassist’s mom, which are exceptionally haunting.

However, most of their performances are of their own original compositions.

The style in which they execute their performance

In 1923, Fiddlin’ John Carson made the first documented country song. Also born that year was Hank Williams.

In the 30 years up until 1953, when Hank passed away, a wide range of styles and sounds were fused into a single, distinguishable and marketable form of Country Music.

Despite the drastic changes in the country since then, Country Music has remained static and has been systematized and set in a routine.

According to Richard A. Peterson in his book Creating Country Music, he claims that the idea of “Authenticity and originality” in country music had been concocted by 1953.

At this point, the target audience had been identified and the industry was institutionalized.

At present, alt-country and Nashville pop-country encompass the sound and emotion of standard country music by adding a touch of twang, a pedal steel, a vocalist with the correct accent, and some fiddle in the background.

These groups take a pop or rock melody and “give it a country feel” by putting it in a ten gallon hat and worn-out boots.

However, they never reach their desired destination, which is to return to the sentiment of an old-fashioned Country Song.

This is impossible because the country they long for is gone – or never truly existed.

Souled American is not attempting to recreate the past; they are pioneering ahead, searching for the sound of a reduced America.

The music they have created displays the journey they have taken to make a form of country music that had never been heard.

Souled American has created a distinct style of country music for a new generation of Americans; one that is spare and desolately melancholic.

This small-town group has managed to capture the aching sound of the nation with an unconventional approach, inverting the traditional approach of subtraction rather than addition.

For the last twenty years, elongated notes and a slower beat has replaced the twang and pedal steel. With the added flair gone, there is now room for emotion to fill the void.

One can hear this transition occurring.

Listen to this occur

Beginning with their first album, the third track is a traditional tune titled “Soldier’s Joy”.

It features harmonica, shuffling drums, a bass line, and clean guitar with clear vocals. Performed in the style of an alt-country band, the song is reminiscent of rock and roll with a twang of country.

Moving on to the 2002 album Nothing Left to Lose:

A Tribute to Kris Kristofferson, their version of “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends” encompasses a distorted guitar and loose piano keys creating a steady, yet slightly jolting rhythm, similar to that of a disused steam engine climbing an Appalachian hillside.

Though they continue to visit the place, they now understand it is not the same as before.

There will be no picturesque cabins with people playing mandolins and fiddles, butchering hogs and creating dwellings with their hands.

Instead, they will see fireworks stores, satellite dishes, dogs scavenging around trailer-park garbage cans, and supermarket carts left on the side of highways.

Souled American continues to ascend, albeit slowly and reluctantly, as if they dread reaching their destination. Nonetheless, they are providing us with field recordings that we can listen to.

Fragile Utterances

The mysterious vocalist on Notes Campfire’s “Born(free)” laments: ”

There’s no love to be found / it’s all vanished away / no love in my home / no kiss in the morning light / it’s all dark in my house / and I cannot comprehend / no love on my street / not even from the corner man / all is pitch black on my street / and I don’t get it / no, that’s why I’m so scared / each and every word is like a piece of glass / and I’m unable to shake this feeling.”

“All these words” can be likened to glass, which, in the dark, can serve as a mirror.

As the night falls, “It’s all dark on my street” and these words become a reflection of ourselves.

The melody is harsh, the words somber. However, it results in a beautiful sound, not a hollow one. Beauty and truth are intertwined and this is demonstrated in the song “Full Picture”.

The lyrics explain that if one does not truly express themselves, it can bring about embarrassment.

Cushions composed of air

Lawrence Weschler has spoken of the lack of moments of awe and breathlessness that have become rare in the present-day world of accelerated media and fleeting attention spans.

He believes this has caused a ‘death of the soul’, and suggests that one should take the time to ‘look, see, admire and be amazed’ and to simply ‘rest in the splendor’.

He created a magazine titled Omnivore that ran for only a single issue.

It served as his antidote to the intense hustle and bustle that has left Souled American and other entities in its wake.

The hurry and rush of life is ceaseless, and many have given up on running the race. They sit in the sidelines, unnoticed and unheard, not knowing where to go.

They are found in many places, from the front steps of homes, to the pavements and bridges. These people can be seen in almost every corner of the United States.

They inhabit a country that is separate and distinct from the majority. In these corners of the nation, darkness and a lack of love pervade.

So, what has been the result of the change in America? Is it not the loss of love and soul? This is why it is called the Souled American.

A general principle

The facility of the notes being played and sung is not as relevant as the capacity of those notes to arouse emotions.

Although there is something admirable about technical ability, it doesn’t necessarily give pleasure. Take into consideration Yngwie Malmsteen and the Ramones. This leads us to esteem the real.

Authenticity affords the opportunity to conjure up a realm unlike our own. We must put our faith in the storyteller to accept the story.

An illustration

I believe this is why Harry Smith included such an abundance of details in the guidebook that came along with Anthology of American Folk Music.

He writes of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Rabbit Foot Blues,” saying, “The earliest legitimate recordings of Texas folk songs were recorded by this artist in a Dallas store’s rug department in 1924.”

He even mentions the alternate renditions of “Bob Lee Junior Blues” and provides their record numbers (Vocalion 1193 and Victor 38020). Smith also includes visuals of the banjo finger positions for C, F, and G-seventh chords.

These details, though not necessarily of any importance, provide the scaffolding that creates Smith’s new world.

As we read the notes of the album and listen to the songs, a mental space is crafted for the music, thus making it seem historically valid.

When too much information is given, it can cause one to doubt the teller.

Authenticity is a creation, it is only believable when we are permitted to use our own imaginations to fill in any missing pieces. Urgent telling can, ironically, make it difficult to do so.

As David Foster Wallace once said, “How mundane of you to ask what I really mean.” When someone finally says what they truly mean, it is hard not to take notice.

A situation that depends on certain conditions being fulfilled

In the early 20th century, among the many musicians in Appalachia, the Mississippi plantations, and beyond, only a few, like Furry Lewis and Cannon’s Jug Stompers, sought out recording sessions to reach a broader audience.

This was likely not an intentional decision to remain anonymous, but was due to the slow and laborious process of disseminating information at the time.

Harry Smith was the one who anthologized these musicians.

In the present day, nearly everyone is able to share their music with the world. Souled American has decided to remain obscure, without a record label or even a MySpace page.

They do have a website, but the content is outdated and the linked email address does not function. The band members do not even have email.

Without many resources or details, we are left only with their songs.

The distinct simplicity of Souled American’s sound, combined with their complete lack of publicity and promotion, results in an atmosphere of anticipation and wonder.

We humans desire to understand who they are and what they mean, and so we are left to interpret the music ourselves.

The slowness and sorrow of the music generates a sense of urgency in our fast-paced and overindulgent world.

We eagerly await the next hint or clue, hoping to find answers in the ever-widening sonic space.


Confirmation of the truth or accuracy of a statement or idea can be described as corroboration.

The outcome is this: a small but dedicated group of fans.

The less the size of an audience, the higher the intensity of its enthusiasm, so Souled American’s minor, few followers make up for the little number of voices with the fervency of every one.

In 1997, when Notes Campfire was released, Camden Joy initiated a campaign to plaster New York City with posters praising the band.

Although it was called “50 Posters about Souled American,” 61 were actually made, each with a unique number and no signature.

The posters reflected a mixture of hope for a resurgence in the band’s career, but also a concern that the group was fading away.

The thirteenth sign says:

As Souled American grew, their ambition, output, melodies, band members, and production aesthetic all began to shrink.

Six albums later, they seemed closed off, beautiful yet lost, and isolated. Appropriately, the title of their comeback album, Notes Campfire, was also the first song on their first CD.

This moment seemed to represent either their return or their end, with their journey circling back and eagerly awaiting the conclusion.

Although it seemed like it was the end, Souled American had not completely vanished. They were still around, not quite fully gone. Not yet.

In conclusion, the starting point was there.

Novelists may suggest that their entire body of work comprises one book. In the same way, Souled American’s six albums form a single song.

It is a lengthy piece, with different sections and a continuous, persistent motif. The theme is a sorrowful one, a lament for loving.

The song starts with the track “Notes Campfire” from the first album and culminates, for the time being, with the same song from the last album, also named Notes Campfire.

The cycle remains the same – the beginning is the end and the end is the start.

The music has been silent for almost a decade, but maybe one day there will be a new album, a new ending, leading to a new silence.

Ultimately, love is destined to be lonely; it always arrives at the same ending.

The opening track of sixty-six, “Notes Campfire,” concludes with a whimsical evaluation of the band in the lines “I know what the band plays / I know what the band fes2 / I know what the band does / I know what the band needs / I know just what they do.”

This line, so straightforwardly about the band, is articulated only to be negated.

This is the mission Souled American embarks on throughout their six-album journey: to illustrate what they play, do, feel, and need; then to revoke, revolve, and alter it, and again offer it to the listener in a different light.

The idea of unavoidable destiny appears once again on the initial track of the album Notes Campfire, “Before Tonight”: “a melody in advance of a vocalization / an opportunity in advance of an option / a light source in front of radiance / held up with the present in front of this evening.”

The articulated feeling of inevitability that is expressed in the melodies and structure of Souled American songs is also echoed in the words of the renowned Irish writer Flann O’Brien in his book The Third Policeman.

He wrote that “we tend to dramatize what we refer to as ‘life’, and in reality, a theater-like situation exists; there is a struggle, if a great man is involved, a tragedy and dramatic irony”.

We think that we have a choice and act in accordance, however there is none. What will be will be, and there is only the space between what we think we can decide and what will inevitably occur.

There is a “chance before a choice”, but as the song goes, “we’re stuck with today before tonight”.

A land full of amazement

Souled American meanders through a variety of musical genres, thematic pairs, and temporal markers.

They have seemingly become lost in the chasm between such dichotomies, but have managed to uncover a realm of possibility and awe.

This awe lies in the space between individual notes, the abyss between what is known and what is implied, and the gap between comprehensible and incomprehensible lyrics.

From a distance, it may appear gloomy and dismal, however, the United States of America is a place of amazement.

Finale: Words to a musical composition entitled “Flat”

A single note of wisdom, certainty, leadership, salvation, and trumpet call, exists beyond the truth, love, and what motivates us. Inevitably, everything will eventually come to an end.

After months of trying, I finally managed to get in contact with Chris Grigoroff. He was remarkably hospitable when we did speak.

  1. As stated by the musical group, “fe” is the way in which reggae vocalists enunciate “feel”.

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