In 1984, Ronald Reagan presented the legendary Western author Louis L’Amour with the highest civilian award the United States has to offer: the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Born in Jamestown, North Dakota in 1908, the honor was a full-circle moment for L’Amour, who dedicated so much of his life to capturing the rambling soul of his country in prose.
Starting his writing career in the Great Depression with contributions to the New Deal-sponsored WPA Guide Book for Oklahoma, L’Amour went on to publish over 100 books, many of which are in the upper echelon of the American literary canon. In a lot of ways, this bibliography—illuminated with gripping storytelling and L’Amour’s inimitable ability to portray the romantic idealism and hard living of the American frontier—amounts to a spiritual biography of the nation’s unrelenting thirst for adventure.
Now, in 2021, L’Amour is receiving another meaningful honor from someone who partly shares a name with his hometown: the Texan folk-rock duo Jamestown Revival. On May 28, they released Fireside With Louis L’Amour, a six-song EP reimagining six of L’Amour’s short stories in a musical setting.
Longtime fans of L’Amour’s work, Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance—the members of Jamestown Revival—have been itching to pay tribute to their literary hero for a while now. Ultimately, it wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, though, that they were able to carve out enough time to pursue the project in earnest. Setting up shop, the duo dove into L’Amour’s first volume of short stories and began plotting out ways to effectively turn the entries into songs.
In the end, the results of Clay and Chance’s process are phenomenal. Arranged in a style reminiscent to Marty Robbins’ iconic Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs—but with a modern indie twist—the EP is a love letter to both L’Amour’s writing and the cultural heritage of the American West itself, in effect cementing Jamestown Revival’s role as a torch-bearer for both.
Earlier this week, American Songwriter hopped on a phone call with Clay and Chance to discuss their appreciation for L’Amour, their journey to this EP, the musical they’re working on and more. Read the conversation below:
American Songwriter: When did y’all first discover Louis L’Amour? What did it mean to you at the time?
Jonathan Clay: I didn’t come to Louis L’Amour through his fiction or any of the short stories—it actually goes back to the fact that I’m a huge Chris McCandless fan. He’s the guy Into The Wild was based on. When McCandless was found in the bus—they called it the ‘Magic Bus’—he was dead from starvation. But one thing they found on his bedside table was the memoir of Louis L’Amour, The Education Of A Wandering Man. I read about that and I was like ‘Well, I want to know what he was reading. I want to know what inspired him to take this journey, to set forth on the path that he took.’
So, I did some digging and read the memoir at a really impactful time in our lives—that was right when Zach and I started to tour a lot. And, you know, Louis talked about his time as a vagabond, basically—a ‘hobo’ as he calls it. He was just traveling, doing labor everywhere from ships to railroads to bars to farms—he just kinda set out on this adventure, not knowing where this path led. But he had faith that the journey was worth it.
AS: When did the idea for this record come about?
Zach Chance: After we read Louis’s memoir, we started reading other books of his. I was vaguely familiar with him because my grandfather was a big fan. We always knew we wanted to do something inspired by his work, but didn’t really know what shape that would take. Then, when COVID came around, we found ourselves with some extra time. So, we started digging into the short stories. We thought it was a really cool fit to adapt the short stories into songs.
JC: We wanted to maintain a regiment with what we were doing. So, we stayed chronological. We decided to just go book by book—we started with volume one of his collected short stories and we just started going through it chronologically. The first song on the album is the first story from that collection—the second song is the second story, and so on. It’s in order, so you can read the book and follow along as you’re listening through the album. Maybe you could even read the story first then listen to the songs, or vice versa.
AS: So, when you actually got into the writing session, what did the process look like? How did you approach reimaging these stories as songs?
JC: Zach and I would get together—we would have either read the short story that morning or the day before. We wanted it to be really fresh. As we would read the stories, we would take notes on them, making a pool of things to pull from—whether it was a line that Louis wrote that really struck us or some colloquialism, like how he would describe a piece of gold as a ‘poke of gold,’ just using some of that verbiage.
We were basically trying to distill those 30-page stories into three-minute-long songs. And being such an incredible writer, Louis manages to get in so much information in such a short span. So, it was a real challenge to try to hit what we felt like were the high points. A verse moves by so fast, but you gotta keep the song moving—dwell on the story too long, you’re gonna lose the attention of your listener. So, trying to strike that balance is a real challenge. But, ultimately, we’re pretty happy with where we landed on all six of the songs.
It’s a different exercise than writing a typical song for ourselves—we got to really sit down and map out our path, putting what information was really pertinent to the story so that we could fit it into three minutes. At a certain point, we were like ‘Okay, let’s break it up into three verses. Verse one, we’re going to get to this point in the story. Verse two, we’re going to cover this side of the story and in verse three, we’re going to wrap it up.’ Then of course, there were questions like ‘Are we getting all the information or retelling the story?’ or ‘Are we gonna have to go double long verse?’ It was a really strategic exercise like that.
AS: You mention that the exercise was different from writing a typical song for yourselves—how so? Do you feel like it exposed you to a new side of your own songwriting abilities?
ZC: Well actually, for the past six years, we’ve actually been working on a musical. We’re writing music for the Broadway adaptation of The Outsiders. So, the process of working on that—especially with the whole creative team over there—has taught us so much about adaptation.
JC: Yeah, it’s writing based around a story that you didn’t write—you’re putting somebody else’s words to the music. So, I really feel like there was no better way to learn how to do that than what we’ve been doing over the past six years. It really prepared us for something like this… which, by the way, plug: The Outsiders. It’s actually opening!
ZC: That’s right! I’ll also add that interpreting somebody else’s work is really cool because you’re no longer the ‘vehicle’ for the song. You’re just trying to convey what somebody else has already put down. So, it’s kind of a fun exercise that really allows you to step outside of yourself. It allows you to not be so emotionally attached to it. You’re more so just trying to get the point across. It’s really fun.
AS: We obviously live in a very different world than the one Louis L’Amour lived in and wrote about, but nonetheless, L’Amour’s stories remain entertaining and emotionally resonant. What do you think it is that makes his stories so timeless?
JC: You know, we just went to Durango to meet with Louis’ son, Beau L’Amour. He talked about how the story of ‘the Western’ is such a relatable story, still. I think everybody can relate to it—it’s the essence of adventure, oftentimes romancing extreme self-reliance and isolation, which everybody thinks they want until they get it. Then, they realize they actually don’t like isolation. But, it’s just the fantasy of being an outlaw. All of these things wear different clothes today, but they’re still very much part of our social fabric. They’re our fantasy, and they’re sorta part of our psychological makeup.
AS: Yeah, Westerns really touch on some of the enduring elements of human nature.
JC: Absolutely, that’s a great way to put it. Beau said it’s ‘man vs. nature,’ but ‘nature’ can mean many different things—it can be societal oppression or societal constructs that place a limitation on us.
ZC: Yeah, plus, this project kinda started as a way to interpret Louis’ stories into songs, but it’s also just a way to celebrate his legacy. Reading any one of his books, I’m always surprised by how quickly I lose myself in the escapism of it. Honestly, I find myself feeling like a little kid again at times. It’s really fun to step into those feelings. On top of that, it’s fun to step into that world and be reminded of the way people lived. You can put yourself in those positions and question your own world compass in a setting where the line between good and bad is often a little blurred.
AS: Yeah, in that sense, it really makes you think about the enduring popularity of Westerns too—at this point, people have been reading and watching Westerns for almost longer than “the Wild West” was even around.
ZC: Yeah, the fascination with the idea of the West is interesting to me. It’s a big part of our identity and culture. Especially growing up in Texas, you have these larger than life figures. Maybe the reason the West is sorta universally celebrated is because there’s something really romantic about it in some ways, and then in other ways, there’s also really hard truth. That still gets me. It’s fascinating.
AS: Tell us about the music side of writing and arranging these songs. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of a modern rendition of Marty Robbins’ seminal Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs.
ZC: Yeah, we’re fans of Gunfighter Ballads and we used to listen to it driving around. We’d throw on Marty Robbins or, like, an old country, jukebox CD that we bought at Walmart. That just stayed in rotation at all times in the car. ‘El Paso’ and ‘Big Iron’ were on solid ‘repeat.’ Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, absolutely. So, we wanted to lean into that Marty Robbins influence.
AS: Between honoring Louis L’Amour’s legacy and having this nod to Marty Robbins and other early country acts, how does it feel to be torch-bearers, in a sense, to that rich musical and cultural legacy?
JC: You know, you obviously feel like you’re standing in the shadow of a giant. And, honestly, it feels a bit like a big responsibility, because the last thing you want to do is fall short of doing such great work justice. But at the same time, you also feel an equal responsibility to keep this stuff alive as someone who continues to tell the story and keeps the art form going. In a world where actual acoustic instruments are a dying breed and music is made on the computer, it seems like this stuff can get fewer and farther between.
So, I don’t know. We’re a bit old-fashioned in that, you know, we do want to keep that alive in our own way and with our own voice, the best we can. We do propel that music forward. We’re just laying stepping stones so people can go back in time. It’s like placing little breadcrumbs. Maybe people who haven’t heard of Marty Robbins listen to this and that leads them to discovering him. Maybe they haven’t heard of Louis L’Amour, so they look into his books. Next thing you know, they’re listening to Gunfighter Ballads and then they’re taken into a piece of American history that they otherwise might not have ever discovered.
Jamestown Revival’s new EP Fireside With Louis L’Amour is out now and available everywhere. Watch the music video for the song “Bound for El Paso” below: