Now ain’t the time to act so righteous
Stand your ground or get in. the way
You and I, we might be different
But right now, you know we’re all to blame
— “So Righteous”
Stoll Vaughan is parked somewhere on the side of the road, in an RV with his wife and his dog. The populist songwriter, a secret weapon for both David Lynch and the Allman Betts Band, is thinking about the state of the world, the way disinformation is ripping us apart and the fact that the truth gets so twisted by the soundbites and talking heads. It’s hard to know where to turn, especially when you’re a particularly porous creator.
At times evoking Springsteen’s Nebraska period, Townes Van Zandt at his most gaunt or the Jeff Buckley of Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, the literal and figurative journeyman artist has a way of tumbling details from the rafters and highlighting sentiments often missed. Hemingway direct lyrically, his melodies leave room for listeners to install themselves.
“So Righteous,” from Desires Shape, wasn’t written during the pandemic, but ongoing political realities were the match to its kindling. With a ragged voice, Vaughan isn’t afraid of the big truths.
Up in the air, blowing like the leaves
In between the chaos and what we’ve seen
No way out and nowhere to hide
Only choice is that you don’t decide
Born together, we’ve been torn apart
Something must break just to change our hearts…
— “So Righteous’
The video, debuting exclusively on AmericanSongwriter.com, is equally straightforward. Black and white, looking like a young T-Bone Burnett in sunglasses, pleated pants, a dark shirt, he plays acoustic guitar, emphasizing the beat with his wedding ring. Preternatually cool, Vaughan just is. No explanation, no setting, just a man, a guitar and a song for the ages – and the moment.
“I’m kind of always meditating on the other dimension,” he says, watching the day drain from the sky. “I want to recognize the pain, but really I’m trying to highlight the hope.”
An hour or more has melted since the conversation began. Born in Kentucky, sent to the acclaimed arts school Interlochen in Michigan and then heading West to the promise of California, the discussion flowed through Prince, Prine, Waits, Dylan (his personal Mount Rushmore), as well as Rambling Jack Elliott, Van Zandt, Coltrane, Marty Stuart, Bill Withers, Elliott Smith, Ornette Coleman. Aspects of songwriting, dimensions of space on a track, the stain of emotions, the evolution inherent in real artists are all part of the conversation. It’s that earthy piece of creativity that calls him.
“I’m a Taurus,” he explains, “so part of my make-up is to be rooted to the ground. A lot of this record was written on the road, came together driving and drifting. You have to find centeredness (in the world). I find freedom in California to explore that I can’t find in the Southeast, but I like that I’m going back to Kentucky. I like being connected to where I’m from. Because that spirit of the universe, I’m always trying to get connected to that.
“Living my life being present, those old thoughts or assumptions, the fundamental things that can get you into trouble, they’re easier to lose if you’re moving and open.”
Talking about the way America shifts as the miles fall under your wheels, Vaughan recognizes that even the dissonance changes depending upon where you are. Laughing, he recalls, “When I pulled out of California and hit Arizona, it’s a free for all – and I don’t have a problem with all of what they’re just coming off of. California’s too politicized, and I don’t find any love driving any of it. When it’s all said and done, we are all equal. Really, we are.”
Which sets up “So Righteous” without even a question. Vaughan is so smart, but also so aligned to his own writing, the themes in his romantic realism move through his conversation like vines.
“Some people hear ‘Righteous’ and go screaming, ‘Those people in Michigan with their guns,’ or ‘Those Lefties in California with their liberal politics.’ Wherever you are, there’s ‘Those people!’ and that’s the problem.”
Vaughan lobs zero recrimination as he says this. Flat, an almost quiet observation, the Transcendental Meditation devotee recognizes truth, hopes to raise awareness and perhaps create better action through knowledge. His arranging – especially on Desires Shape, his fourth album since 2006 – takes that same exhaling approach: the warmth of that acoustic guitar played as mucb to support his voice as to flex his playing, the wheezing harmonica that echoes the vocal or reinforces the music’s themes.
“The feelings don’t live inside us, but we live inside the feelings,” he offers of the existential suspension of these recordings. “I’m okay with the loneliness and the beauty of it; that’s how I lean into the beauty.
“I wonder, ‘If I was this person, I shouldn’t be angry, because you hold a different idea.’ It’s a lot of going back and trying to get better, to understand or accept (the opposing reality) in trying to go forward. Sometimes just to think about what people are feeling on both sides…
“I’m willing to change my mind or learn something new to see the humanity.”
Whether the stomp’n’shuck hand-clapped passion of “Maria,” desolation over a few piano notes and organ pads of the forgotten man/small town in “Oklahoma,” the striding finger-picked guitar reassurance to a battered woman on the run “Rosie” or the elegiac “Desires of Despair,” Vaughan creates vastness out of minimalism as well as imbuing Dorothea Lange despondency with the photographer’s same dignity.
The title track of sorts fixes in amber a friend, a Midwestern kid caught in the jaws of the opioid crisis who ultimately wouldn’t make it. “I thought about the mother, who’d grown up kind of troubled, and it’s my heart for her, too. You know if you don’t change your life drastically, you’re going to lose. It’s inevitable.”
Pausing to consider the larger arc, he confesses it’s the humanity that matters most. “I was writing with the big hand, without judgement, but more the despair guiding me. My favorite line in the song is when the dog comes up every hour and a half to get a pat on the back. The dog doesn’t judge, doesn’t want anything but kindness, which (the kid)’s still capable of giving.
“That human touch? That’s what’s important. The homeless problem in LA is terrible, as well. So that narrator is a lot of other people, too: the father, the guy, you, me.”
Woody Guthrie understood the power of songs, and he weaponized them. Dylan, too, embraced wielding big truths as calls to action. Vaughan worries the white noise and tv news/social media cycle-created Tower of Babel makes it harder for these truths to cut through. But he’s undeterred.
‘These writers we talked about, they can all make time stand still – and it feels like traveling. They put you there, make you feel these things.
“Time is not so constraining as we make it,” he continues, unwinding a larger truth that shoots through his writing. “Your fears and the little b.s. things don’t have quite the power we give them; they’re what hold you back. When you’re ‘there,’ really present, those things fall away and. these truths emerge.
“When I was at Interlochen, I had a teacher who recognized (the cocoon safety of the school’s creative environment). He said, ‘When you leave here, don’t look back. You go out and have as many experiences as possible. You go be somebody, don’t follow the crowd and really see.’”
The details, the echoes, the warmth. All the subtle things define people in ways screaming or Pavlovian responses never will. He knows that, laughs that he’s been spotted for the nuance inside his songs.
“Maybe I can’t sing crazy melodies, but there’s a humanness to my voice that rattles (the listeners) inside themselves – and makes them feel things.
“In this day and age, you have to really listen to the record,” he admits. “And getting people to listen, it’s difficult. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go there.”
“The rivers are rising
It won’t be long
Be dead and gone
Night’s falling and the lines are blurred
The right to be living we all deserve…”