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Barton Carroll: From Hills To Sea

Growing up among the mountains of Appalachia almost always etches itself indelibly into one's character. There is a certain nature to those hills that grows inside the people who dwell there, marking them with a strength and power that belies mere geography. The music that has come from that region has always been filled with that power; more than the high lonesome sound of bluegrass, more than the strong character of folk, the music with its roots in Appalachia is always filled with a strange truth that sinks its way into the soul of the listener and becomes an integral part of how that listener sees the world. Barton Carroll was raised in the hills of North Carolina, and while he was surrounded by this intensely powerful music in his youth, it was not until he was a little bit older that he began to realize the impact it had had on his life. His latest release, The Lost One, contains all the elements of a great work of Appalachian folk, from the lonesome wail of the steel guitar to the deeply entrenched meaning and imagery in the lyrics.

Carroll was raised near the Tennessee border in the same town where Doc Watson lived, "I lived a few miles away from Doc Watson, not that he was a neighbor - no one is really neighbors up in the hills - but I would see him around town and I'd seen him play as a child and stuff… I guess I knew that he was regionally famous; I didn't know that he was a national treasure. Which he really is." Growing up with parents playing bluegrass music made it seem somewhat natural that Barton would somehow follow suit, but as it goes with teenagers and young adults, the ways of the parents are often shunned for something entirely different. Barton went to university and studied English literature, before he relocated to the west coast and began to realize his own musical future. Despite his attempts to put away the spirit of the hills, growing up in that strong geographical closeness to the home of Americana eventually worked its way into Carroll, though he is quick to admit, "You know, at the time I was interested in the Sex Pistols and The Ramones, I didn't realize how much folk music was sinking into me, especially the Appalachian stuff… It was kind of a struggle. I wanted to skateboard and listen to punk rock and live in the city, and as soon as I moved to Seattle… well, right before I moved to Seattle I started listening to Doc Watson, Ralph Stanley, Bruce Springsteen, Townes Van Zandt… you know, part of that was just that I was getting older. You know, I'd always liked that stuff I just didn't want to admit it. I'd always liked the story song; I'd always been drawn to that stuff. My dad was a big country music fan, my step-dad was. You know I always loved Creedence and that type of stuff, which I think has a lot in common with punk rock. But it took me a long time to realize that this kind of stuff really speaks to me."

While living in Seattle, Barton recorded his debut self-titled album, as well as his second record Love & War, but set them to the side while he went on to play guitar with Eric Bachman and with indie stalwarts Crooked Fingers. Some members on the Crooked Fingers' message board caught wind of Barton's solo recordings and began to ask to hear them. While on tour he would carry copies to pass out to those who were interested, and one of those folks ended up being the owner of a small label called Skybucket Records. Barton recounts, "What had happened is that Love & War had been in the can for about 3 years… I had finished it around the time that I joined Crooked Fingers and then I kind of got this paid vacation being in another band. It was great. Through the Crooked Fingers chat room, some fan had asked me if I had a record, and I said, 'yeah, I'll send it to you.' So I mailed it when I got home and they started talking about it in the chat room and so other people were asking about it. It's the power of the internet. One of those people was Travis Morgan who owns a record label in Alabama called Skybucket. So we were playing in Birmingham, and he asked for a copy… it had gotten to the point where I'd just take some CDRs on the road. This is my second record… I gave him a copy, don't remember meeting him… and two years later, after I had finished this most recent album, he called me and said 'hey, I really like Love & War and I keep thinking it's going to come out.' And I said, 'Well, I just finished another record last week,' so I mailed him everything I had." Thus the relationship with Skybucket was born and Love & War was released to some critical acclaim. The vacation of touring in other bands was revitalizing for Carroll, as he relates, "I just [kept] making these albums but I could never find a home for them so I just kept putting them in the can, building this body of work. That was the whole idea. Then I did the whole tour with Crooked Fingers and Azure Ray and everything, and kept doing stuff in the meantime. But I kind of needed those tours to get back on my feet as a songwriter and feel confident enough to get back out there. That's when I made The Lost One, which is why I think it breathes a little more than the previous two albums. There's a little bit more levity to it."

The songs on The Lost One are definitive in a somewhat abstract way. They paint the picture of a solitary man masked by his introspective tendencies. But is this a true representation of the real Barton Carroll? When asked about the immediacy and intimacy of his music, Carroll is quick to make the point that his songs are not really autobiographical. "I tell people [the songs are] very emotionally autobiographical. Whenever I play the song 'Those Days Are Gone And My Heart Is Breaking" I've gotten to the point where I'll introduce the song and say that it's not literally autobiographical. When I'm playing it live people always tell me they didn't know I had a son… and I tell them that I don't, but don't worry… I kind of make a joke about it and then play the song. And then after the set people say, 'So I guess you have a son. I didn't know that.' I don't know whether to take it as a compliment or what, but it's obviously convincing people." There is so much honest conviction in the songs on The Lost One that it would be hard indeed to separate the stories from the man. In his writing, Carroll is searching for the larger truth in the scene, rather than the literal truth or non-truth of the actions. Being a student of literature has certainly had its impact on Carroll, not only in his writing, but also in his outlook on daily life. But there is a much larger scope to his embracing of the art of the story, as he explains, "I want it to be true, whether it's factual is beyond the point. I like what Werner Herzog, the filmmaker, said; he's looking for the ecstatic truth. He's not looking for factual truth. That's why in some of his documentaries, he'll ask the subjects of the film to actually do several takes until he gets the take he's after… that's stretching the definition of a documentary, but he's looking for that ecstatic truth. I find that a really interesting concept; [that is] the kind of geography that I want to move around in."

Expounding on this concept of art as the truest form of humanity, it is easy to look deeper into the songs and find the common thread of the dispossessed; a character with little to celebrate, merely making it through day to day searching for the greater good, or for the chance at love. This concept flows readily from classic literature and Carroll makes the most of it in his own peculiar way. When asked what type of books he tends towards, his reply was effusive. "Interesting enough, I tend to like to read non-fiction. I got very interested - it's kind of a joke among my friends - I got very interested in war history, particularly World War II, particularly genocide and the holocaust. That was sort of the windmill that I came to history with. I studied English literature, but I think I attached literature to academia so much that I needed a break. And I really wanted to know what happened in the bigger sense. What happened? Obviously, in history there is no accurate… you know, all history is an interpretation. But I felt like if there was a way to get into - again we're looking for that ecstatic truth - so I got very interested in genocide and the effects of war on the civilian population. Which is what a lot of my last record Love & War is about, and where the song "Small Thing" came from. Obviously, and that was connected to the book that my mother co-wrote. I got interested in that, and I think most writers, and songwriters particularly, are interested in why people do what they do. And on my last record, I felt like war was this extreme portrayal of humanity, and obviously the killing of another of your own species is this absolute extreme, whereas love is this other extreme. Love is the quest of the individual and the recognition of the individual, where war is the quest of the collective. That stuff fascinates me to no end. So I got really interested in reading that stuff, trying to find stories in there and sort of draw from that. Lately I've come back around to fiction. I'm a big fan of Martin Amis. He wrote my favorite book of last year called The House Of Meetings. I get compared to writers a lot." It is easy to see why that comparison is so often drawn with the literary approach that Carroll makes to his songwriting. There is an effortlessness in the songs on The Lost One musically that makes them very easy to listen to while the darkness of the lyrics drag the mind through a startling and dreary landscape. When asked about why his songs don't tend toward happier stories, Carroll is quick to point out that rarely has good art been inspired by happiness. "I think the sad songs are the ones we always go back to. Music is a very insular thing, especially to me. I used to listen to my headphones, because growing up in the mountains, the mountains are so quiet and our house was so quiet cause we were out in the woods, I really got into that world that a lot of young people get into where music is the window to the outside world. Television does it for a lot of people, and that could be good or bad. And film does it for some people. But it's that window to other people's stories and that access to the world around you, and the artistic types are always drawn to that. And books kind of serve as that same kind of deal. But the sad ones are the ones that I'm always drawn to."

Barton Carroll believes in the power of music and the power of art to transform humanity and make the world a better place, or at the very least, a tolerable place. The simple truths of music and art far surpass those things that mere words can convey. "Music is an emotional language. It's a language... again, we go back to this sentence 'I love you' and it's different if you say it or if you sing it. And obviously you can say it in a poetic way or with conviction or emotion, but when you sing it it's known that you can… Music is there to express emotion because words often fail us. Poetry is there to express emotion because strict prose can't do it. Art… I think these are languages. I'm a language person, so I go back to that. I feel that they are the language that expresses what cannot be expressed with cerebral words or with actions, sometimes. And obviously if everything is emotionally stable and fine, what are you going to sing about? There are people who can do, like John Denver can sing about mountains, which is cool. But it still fills him with emotion. It doesn't fill me with emotion, but it did him. It's a little bit square. There's no sex in it. But hey… a lot of people like it and are into it. That's a real thing, it just isn't for me…"

There is so much depth in the songwriting, and in the soul, of Barton Carroll. Sitting down with him for a chat is an interesting and entertaining time, filled with talk of literature and human tendencies. Simple life truths come out, like "When you lose some of that anger and some of that urgency… and some of that optimism, then you start to accept your lot in life. You start to grieve and you realize that you don't get the world. After a while you realize that this is the world you live in, and that is when you get country music." But perhaps nowhere is the heart of the man more prominent than in his songs. As The Lost One ends, so will this article, with the gentle poetry of a man looking for his place in a world of folk music, great literature, and adventurous days. "I have sailed these ailing skies/I have trodden desert's path/I have seen the storm arise/Like a giant in his wrath/Every danger I have known/That a reckless life can feel/Though her presence isn't close/Her bright smile haunts me still."

-David DeVoe

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