Recently, Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free debuted at the top of the country charts. Singer-songwriter-rebel Todd Snider declared “the war is over”, implying that real country music had prevailed over Nashville’s pop country. The sentiment is understandable; the lack of artistry in much of country radio is reprehensible if you care about things like, you know, songwriting. But Samantha Crain’s Under Branch and Thorn and Tree is a nice reminder that, for most artists making folk music, there are bigger wars to fight.
Crain is from Oklahoma, home of Woody Guthrie, the original kind of the American protest song, but Guthrie’s not the artist you’d first think of with her music. Guthrie’s protest songs were simple, meant to be choruses people could repeat over and over. Samantha Crain’s songs are story-driven, weaving tales of hard lives and lost chances. On 2013’s Kid Face, the stories were Crain’s own, and it was clear there was a catharsis she needed to reach. Under Branch and Thorn and Tree doesn’t strive for catharsis, at least not as directly as Kid Face did. Crain sounds like she’s made peace with her own demons- now she wants to fight everyone elses’.
It would be easy to miss the protest part of Crain’s protest songs. It’s often hidden in the stories, but her contempt is biting enough if you look for it. She opens with “Killer”, where she reminds America of the crimes committed against her people, Native Americans (though specifically the Choctaw tribe for her), driving home the idea that “you made us strangers in our very own homes”. “Elk City” chronicles the struggle of a working woman stuck in small-town Oklahoma, paralyzed by the restrictions society has laid on her shoulders. And “You or Mystery” laments a neighbor’s death and the way our culture cultivates isolation and marginalization.
There are personal songs on Under Branch too, but, paired with the protest-minded ones, they only enhance Crain’s working-woman perspective. Crain’s fortunate enough to be able to make music and tour for a living, though it’s not like she’s breaking the bank or anything. She still waits tables when she’s back in Shawnee. And while she may have worked out her demons on Kid Face, Crain’s still human, and she expresses heartbreak and loss at several points on Under Branch, like on “Moving Day” or “When You Come Back”. But those tracks function as threads in a tapestry this time, rather than forming the whole picture. It’s really the ideal folk album: a collection of protest songs that also happen to be inspired by the singer’s personal world.
At a time when Americana’s moment in the mainstream sun is waning, albums like Samantha Crain’s are important. We need to be reminded every now and then that roots music runs deeper than trends and popularity. Snider may have declared the war over, but he missed the point. Mainstream country can be really annoying, but it’s not powerful enough to erase good country music’s substantial influence. Crain is living proof that the power of roots music is self-evident.
Edited: The original post mistakenly placed Crain in the Shawnee tribe. She’s Choctaw. Thanks, Scott Bedgood.