The Mastersons | Red, White & I Love You Too | (Compass)
Four and a half out of Five Stars
Music and messaging have always been rather contentious bedfellows. Ever since the earliest days of this nation, oppressed people have expressed their anguish and anxiety in song, while venting their feelings and frustrations. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, Woody Guthrie gave voice to those toiling against economic inequality, paving the way for people like Pete Seeger, Odetta, Peter, Paul and Mary, Josh White, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez, all of whom helped crusade for justice, civil rights, the freedom to speak freely about tragedy of war and against those who would impose their will on the weak and helpless. With the dawn of the ‘60s, those voices grew louder and became infused in popular song, whether it was the Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” recorded as a reaction to the protests on L.A.’s Sunset Strip, ” Phil Ochs’ immortal ant-war anthem “I Ain’ Marching Anymore” or Crosby, Stills, Bash and Young’s anthem “Ohio,” an exhortation to action that expressed outrage in the wake of the Kent State shootings.
Given today’s tumultuous times, and the combination of political posturing that’s widened the gap within the political divide, the emergence of the Black Lives Matter Movement to combat America’s ongoing racial disparity and the scourge of a pandemic which rages seemingly out of control as underscored by the apathy of the current administration, protest music is resurfacing once again in the current cultural climate. It’s been egged on by outrage, frustration and a growing sense that the nation is moving further in the direction of repression and alienation. These are indeed troubling times, a political shift that hasn’t gone unnoticed by singers and songwriters determined to speak out and share a soapbox.
It’s clearly inspired the ire of Chris and Eleanor Masterson’s, a duo seeped in folk-infused Americana and whose own career stands apart from the roles they play in the Dukes, famously known as Steve Earle’s ongoing backing band. Of course, Earle himself has never shied away from adopting an insurgent attitude, but the fact that he generally courts controversy has little to do with the Masterson’s latest manifesto, a newly released five song EP that speaks directly to the nation’s political malaise. Tellingly-titled Red, White & I Love You Too, it comes quickly on the heels of their highly-praised full length album, No Time For Love Songs, released earlier this year.
That last effort wasn’t devoid of a political perspective, but given that it was embellished by rich arrangements and a seemingly romantic resolve, a large percentage of its messaging strayed well below the surface. By contrast, Red, White & I Love You takes an unbridled view of the current political malaise and makes no effort at all to suppress a feeling of both anguish and outrage in equal measure.
The couple claim the songs were inspired by all that’s transpired in the past four years, particularly those events overseen by the current administration. The oldest song on the EP, “In the Name of God,” was written approximately three years ago following a series of benefits that found the duo sharing stages with Patty Griffin, Joan Baez and Brandi Carlisle in an effort to support of plight of the latest wave of refugees.
“At the time, we were wondering if that song was going to be relevant in a couple of years,” Eleanor muses. “Sadly, it is. It’s been a pretty intense four years… pretty traumatic I would say.”
“If anything, we wanted to create the new work in tandem with the original album while reflecting back on that record as well,” Chris recalls. “Some songs just seemed to age well, and some of the songs on that album, when we wrote them, we couldn’t have anticipated the world we’d be living in when they first hit the street.”
The track titled “I’m Your Girl’ is the most recent composition the EP has to offer. Eleanor says she was channeling Woody Guthrie when she wrote it.
“We had a couple of songs that we put in the pile for the full length album, but at one point, our producer, Shooter Jennings, said some of the songs we had written were their own tornado,” Chris recalls. “I thought that was a great description. That’s when we came up with the idea that for the songs didn’t quite fit in that pile, we could come up with this EP. It would have been an ambitious task if we had been on tour all year like we usually are. This was discussed long before we were all sequestered in our homes, so who knows if we would have even gotten around to it.”
“We wanted the No Time For Love Songs album to be political,” Eleanor insists. “But we balanced it with some other songs that are about love and personal loss and other things that weren’t political, because we believe that it’s important to be able to relate to people artistically on a number of levels. It’s pretty dire right now. Our entire industry is completely shut down. I have no idea when we’ll be able to tour again. A lot of these venues are going to be shut forever. We had to move a lot of our dates from January 2021 to January 2022, so this is a really unsettling time…”
“For everybody,” Chris adds.
“It’s hard not to just feel rattled when you have this barrage of insanity every single day,” Eleanor insists. “It’s hard not to get depressed about it, but I think that’s kind of the goal of the other side. It’s important to defend our democracy. I used to work as a community organizer when I lived in Austin. We knocked on doors and got people to write letters, and we made great changes just by organizing people’s voices. Our voices matter, and though you might not think that your voice alone is going to make a difference, when we all speak up for what’s right together, it can make a great difference. So that’s what we all must do.”
Still, there are those who only want their entertainers to entertain and to stay clear of pontificating or politicizing. It can be argued, after all, that there’s enough of that going around without having it being culled through creativity.
“There’s something that happens when people write you, and they’re part of the ‘shut up and sing’ crowd,” Chris observes. “But then you click over to their social media and you see that they’ve posted their thoughts and opinions all over the page. So that really tells me that we have to do the same thing. I’m sorry that a few more people happen to look at our page, but we’re just doing the same thing they’re doing. We feel it’s our responsibility to use our voice.”
“I also think it’s important to call out the hypocrisy,” Eleanor interjects. “It’s really upsetting to me when I see people on the right who claim to be Christians and then turn a blind eye to children in cages or to the behavior of our leaders, or to the 200,000-plus people who are dead as a result of this virus. That’s not being a good ambassador for your religion. Even though I won’t tell people who to vote for or how to vote, I’d just ask them to lead with love and kindness and empathy and good values. If you do that, there’s no way you can vote for the guy that’s in office now.”
Still, they admit that it’s always an uphill battle trying to change the minds of those who are so committed to their convictions. Arguments often prove futile due to the discord. Does that not become simply a matter of preaching to the proverbial choir?
“We had a lot of people write us, and while we couldn’t get back to all of them, we did disarm a couple of them,” Chris says. “You have to lead with kindness. The leader of the free world has given the green light for everyone to act hostile and shitty. I grew up in Texas, and I was around conservative people all the time, but it was never so in your face like this is. People went behind the curtain and voted, and though they had different views, but it was never as hostile an s today’s environment.”
“I’ve seen the behavior of people I know change in a negative way,” Eleanor adds. “But I don’t think we’re trying to change any minds. People who are entrenched in that way of thinking are not going to change their opinion. It’s almost a lost cause because there’s been a lot of brainwashing and propaganda and misinformation out there, and it’s really sad that they can’t see through the con job. However I think it is important to try and reach the people who think that they can’t make a difference or that it’s not worth voting because there’s not a better choice. I think that a lot of people on the left, the super progressives, are disappointed that Biden is the choice, but I think that we just have to get the ball back and protect the integrity of our democracy from a racist that’s abusing it. It’s really on us to get people fired up because there are some really pressing issues, whether it’s Covid or global warming… we’re on a train going off a cliff. We have to wake up because we have some pretty heavy things we have to deal with and we have to come together with kindness instead of contempt and try to figure these things out.”
Ultimately then, the new EP serves as a clarion call — a rallying cry, if you will — meant to encourage a vote for change in an election cycle that’s especially critical at this moment in history.
At the same time though, the two understand that the goal is also to entertain. Despite its emphasis on educating and informing, Red, White & I Love You Too manages to come off as a series of songs that are alluring and accessible. Opening track “Wings” is a gilded serenade, even despite its ominous overtures. Likewise, the track that follows, “I’m Your Girl,” comes across as a soothing, yet seductive caress. “No Time for Love Songs,” which reprises the title track of its predecessor, provides an easy amble that opts for easy enticement. “In the Name of God” is somewhat more emphatic, while closing track “Sensitive Soul” digs deep into the emotional firmament with an unmistakable attempt to attract the attention of those who serve on the front line of opposition while not giving in to disappointment and despair.
“I’ve always tried to balance words and melodies,” Eleanor insists. “You can use a beautiful melody to convey a harsh lyric. This is definitely a little more stripped down. On our last record, there was a lot of production to kind of mask the harshness of the words, but in this case, the lyrics might be a little more forward.”
“When we used to go play shows on a Friday night, I’d have a healthy respect for the people that come, because regardless of who they are, they deserve to get a great show,” Chris says. “They bought two tickers, got a sitter, went out to dinner… that’s an expensive proposition. Our aim is not to piss somebody off, but hopefully to galvanize them instead. Otherwise that would be a bad motive to work under. We put it out, but we can’t control the outcome if somebody doesn’t want to listen. That’s fine. They’re free to move on.”
Even so, as far as the Masterson are concerned, the onslaught of activism is a good and necessary thing, and a definite motivation to make music that speaks to the issues of the day. “Protest music is coming back, sadly out of necessity,” Chris muses. “Times of turmoil do tend to generate great art, but I’ve always thought that art and activism go hand in hand.”
“Some people don’t want to be political, and they stay away from politics,” Eleanor concedes. “But working with Steve Earle and other artists like Patty Griffin has demonstrated that it is important to use your voice. You have to be really careful because you can’t speak out about everything. Yet we are seeing more and more artists starting to speak out, whether it’s Tyler Childers or Jason Isbell. There are definitely a lot of people speaking out much more.”
Ultimately then, despite present circumstances, the Masterson still see reason for optimism.
“We’ve had the chance to align ourselves with a lot of artists that are speaking out more now,” Chris reflects. “When we wrote No Time for Love Songs, we were kind of joking that when we hear a simple love song or song about drinking whiskey on the highway, it seems rote. Not that any of those things are bad things… but that’s just not who we are. I think we need to be speaking up and using our voices.”
And, he insists, music can serve not only to motivate and provide meaning, but also to soothe the spirit when the need for comfort is critical.
“Art is what’s gettin us through the pandemic whether its binge watching a show on Netflix or listening to new music when it comes out of Friday or getting into a good book,” Chris suggests. Art will get us through this and it will still be around when we can get back on the road.”