As the title would suggest, coloured by her bluegrass roots, Baiman’s third album, Common Nation Of Sorrow, is often rooted in a commentary on contemporary America, the oppressed and dispossessed united in their sufferings and the burden of economic tyranny, though such themes very readily translate beyond her native shores.
Although it wasn’t something she shared with her friends as child, her father was a part of the Democratic Socialists of America, what was then a fringe group of activists but is now the biggest socialist organisation in the country, dedicated to reforms within capitalism that empower working people while decreasing the power of corporations. Years later, Baiman is now herself very much an activist for change, both in the body politic and ourselves, regarding the shared experience captured in the title as a mechanism to encourage the struggle.
Written on the eve of the Biden election, it opens with the walking rhythm ‘Some Strange Notion’, from whence the album title comes and, featuring string section with drums and vocals by Miles Miller, is inspired by generational activism, the notion that “the work of working people/Seldom fruits in their own time/So they labor for their children/With stardust in their eyes/Knowing all too well that through their days/They will never see a time/When the hands that keep them bent and kneeled/Fall prey to their own lies” and that “the dead will finally sleep so sweet/When the people rise at last”.
It’s followed by the serene ‘Annie,’ a co-write with Erin Rae who also adds backing vocals while Miller whistles, that draws on the inevitable loss of childhood innocence as adulthood and the realities of the world take over, of being too “eager to see what would tear me apart” as she describes how “Annie’s on the verge of tears/Drinking coffee through a straw she/Tells the kids to cover their ears/This is grownup talk/I cover mine for her to see but/Left little cracks between my fingers/When the news gets in/I wish I wasn’t listening”.
The album’s sole cover is John Hartford’s ‘Self Made Man’, featuring Riley Calcagno on Hartford’s own banjo, her embellishment and setting of a song fragment only released after his death that speaks of the many fingers stepped on and people cast off on the way to becoming a self-made man (“Don’t you wonder what he thinking when he holds your life in the palm of his money-stained hand/Don’t you wonder how long before you kick face down in the place in the place where you thought you used to stand”).
Opening with low drone before Calagno’s fingerpicked guitar, her banjo and Tristan Scroggins’ mandolin arrive, the rhythmically shuffling ‘She Don’t Know What To Sing About Anymore’ has its origins in a dream about the world ending with a simultaneous eruption of volcanoes (“Every volcano on the face of the earth blew up at once, like a fiery red curse”), its unleashed energy prompting memories of childhood (“She was building corn castles for worms, in the great Midwest/Selling lemonade on the side of the road/She didn’t know what it meant to move slow/She broke every record, aced every test”) referencing her singing in the local gospel choir, the title again returning to how the adult world can grind you down.
She’s more directly autobiographical with the bluesy ‘Lovers And Leavers’ that addresses her struggle with bipolar disorder (“There is no middle, only highs, only lows/It’s a beast it’s a burden, it’s a bottle half full”), the chorus concerning how we often invite in her own heartbreaks (“Askin’ for trouble, yea were drinkin’ it in/Then were cursing the rubble, we made from our sins”) conjuring a metaphor from Brown Recluse spiders whose bite can, over time, create a hole in the flesh and bone.
The slow waltzing sway of ‘Bad Debt’ relates a common experience of constantly struggling with debt, every income going to pay off a loan, the narrator lamenting “Well I’ve always been thirsty, and I drink like a fish/And it holds me and warms like a good woman’s kiss/But I always knew, that someday I’d find/That I’d drunk all my chances and gone out with the tide”, always taking but never paying back.
Counted in and recorded live with twin banjos and mandolin, nostalgia glows at the heart of ‘Old Songs Never Die’, a celebration of the traditional old time and bluegrass music on which she was reared and which have stood the test of time and remain the property of the people (“Let the money man try to gauge its worth/Pay a million dollars for every verse/
But you can’t claim and you can’t own/These songs that live inside my soul”), a reminder that “The best of life ain’t something you can hold in your two hands”.
A second co-write, this with Amy Alvey of Golden Shoals, the slow and spare ‘Bitter’ contemplates, tongue in cheek, what it might be like to decide to give up pursuing your artistic dreams so that others can make money (“What makes life worth living should pay/But I found no meaning/Nothing to believe in/Just men getting rich in the shade”) and having “Been used like a jukebox/Placed like a stage prop”. Only to end up realising that at the end of the day the (metaphorical) “dog still needs feeding”.
Baiman on fiddle and Scoggins on mandolin, the slow waltzing ‘Old Flame’ has a particularly poignant backstory, inspired after hearing a song by Luke Bell, with whom she had a short and disastrous relationship in her twenties, playing on the jukebox of some dive bar she and her friends were drinking (“Love turns to smoke/Dreams turn to dust but that old melody’s just the same/My heart still burns, my stomach still turns/When I hear the songs of an old flame”), he being found dead in his car shortly after it was written.
It ends with the twin acoustic guitars of ‘Ways Of The World’, a closing crooned lullaby to her child for innocence and safety (“you’re laying in my arms/Nothing here can do you harm/It’s the way I’d like your world to be…There are places that you will go/Foreign lands that I will never know/And you will slay a million beasts”) in a world of troubles and apology for being the root of some of them as she softly sings “There are things that I have said and done/Things that I am not proud of /You, my dear, have just begun/So let me shield you in my love”.
Common Nation Of Sorrow may be fuelled by shared sorrows but it is indeed that common nation that can help us rise above for, as Joseph Campbell said, “we cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy”. Ultimately, when confronted with the darkness, Baiman chooses to look for the light.
Artist’s website: www.rachelbaiman.com
‘Annie’ = live: