The Great Again L.P.
by Pancho Morris
Pancho Morris, musician and historian, discusses what it was like writing a record for revolution.
The GREAT AGAIN L.P. by Pancho Morris was recorded in Oakland, CA against the backdrop of America’s political reckoning in 2016. Made in collaboration with Nashville producer James Wallace and the artist residency Zoo Labs, it tells the story of self-radicalization in an America where everyone is an enemy and no one knows the truth. I love this record. I think you’ll love this record. Here’s its story.
Most of the songs were written in the summer of 2015 while I was on the road with Splendor All Around, a mobile music venue that tours the American west out of a baby blue school bus. In deep red California country we cut our chops playing tiny shows in tiny towns. From 29 Palms to Point Reyes Station, everywhere we went enthusiastic people welcomed us into their driveways, backyards, schools, farms, and parks. As summer turned to fall, our CSA* bus of local, organic, grass-fed music was becoming a wholesome foil to the toxic clustertrump of media, entertainment and politics unraveling daily and nightly on TV.
While all of the songs share themes of political radicalization and alienation, Strangetown U.S.A. most embodies what it feels like to be trapped between worlds, wrestling with your conscience.
Strangetown U.S.A. is about waking up in a country that no longer feels your own, where your very existence is an act of treason.
Initially written without a melody or lyrics, Strangetown U.S.A. did not have a name. It was an instrumental I’d strum at shows between songs when I didn’t have anything else to play. Noodling it by chance one June afternoon, my girlfriend stumbled across Trump’s golden escalator announcement that he was running for president. What he said about immigrants and Mexicans made me sick. My family lived in Chihuahua and Durango just two generations ago. Six generations ago, we were Californian before California was part of the United States, Americans before Don John ever got here. I didn’t take it seriously at all.
“Strange…” I said and nothing more.
A whimsical gloom began to set in. Writing the lyrics felt like a conscious uncoupling. From the country I thought we weren’t (but as it it turns out, we’ve always been). A strange country, founded on stolen land and built off the labor of immigrants and slaves. A beautiful and cold land, haunted by its ancestral ghosts whose murders stalk our conscience all the closer in vulnerable times.
In Butter & Guns—the sister track to Strangetown U.S.A.—a refugee begs their lover not wait for them and, instead, stake out an escape from the gathering storm. Osawatomie follows the story of radical abolitionist John Brown who, on the run from authorities for assassinating a plantation owner and freeing his slaves, orchestrates a failed insurrection at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, foreshadowing Civil War to come. Holy War is about the ugly side of revolution, as liberty gives way to stagnation, idealism to corruption, and unity to isolation, betraying the foundational values of the revolution and hastening its decay. With each song, the stakes are boldly raised as the album climaxes with contagious chants of “Goddamn! I Love the Way I Am!” during Barefoot in the Promised Land Screamin! a nostalgic but empowering ballad about loving yourself and remembering your worth in times of great change and upheaval.
In story and in sound the record plays like decades clashing, as if the American Revolution, Civil War, and WWIII were happening all at once & all over again. This playful (though at times deadly serious) patchwork quilt of vintage and futuristic sounds illuminates an urgency in our time—a story of fear and uncertainty giving way to empowerment.
In February 2016, the Splendor crew attended Zoolabs’ two-week music residency and, while there, tracked the first half of GREAT AGAIN with help from Zoolabs co-founders Dave and Vinitha Watson, producer Brad Dollar, and over a dozen other Bay Area musicians. That summer, I wrote four more songs and workshopped an artistic concept for the album with the Pyramid School.
Meanwhile the 2016 election was turning in a bad way. Civil society was having a complete meltdown. In November, I returned to the Zoo with James Wallace, bus-captain Wiley Rogers, and a garage orchestra of singers and session musicians — including vocalists Desiree Cannon, Mikayla McVey, Rebecca Marcyes & Clark “Big Kitty” Williams, Drummer Peter Labberton, Bassist Bevan Herbekian, and Fiddler Adrian Delmer.
Forty-eight hours after we turned off the mics & left the studio, Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States.
THIS IS YOUR RESISTANCE RECORD. YOUR PERSISTENCE RECORD. THE GREATEST RECORD. THE ALBUM OF OUR TIMES!! This is an album that wants you TO DREAM! SCHEME! GET MAD! FEEL SAD! CRY OUT & MAKE NOISE! This is that good old American SOUND and VISION. Maybe you know its name as ROCK N ROLL. Music to THINK TO! RAGE TO! MARCH TO! GRIND ON! SING ALONG WITH! DANCE TO! LEGISLATE TO! & RESIST WITH!
Thank-you for taking the time to read. And thank-you for your support.
*CSA: refers to a “community-supported agriculture” box, or CSA box, of fresh produce delivered from a local farm.