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.e
While Strangetown U.S.A. was written during the election, most of the songs from 2015. I was on the road with Splendor All Around, a mobile music venue that tours the American west out of a modified baby blue school bus. In California country we cut our chops playing tiny shows in tiny towns, from 29 Palms to Point Reyes Station. Most of the songs were written about the people I met out there. Enthusiastic, kind, gracious people, who hardly ever had a spectacle like ours come to their town. They welcomed our big bus into their driveways; they invited us to stay in their homes. I wrote about the places they lived, their fledgling hopes and dreams. Growing up in rural Indiana, I could relate to the frustrations. I began writing the songs like a chronicle. Not all of them stayed in rotation, but the best of them stuck to me like a germ. I didn’t know it at the time. I was becoming radicalized. Not only by my travels but by the politics in Oakland. We were all becoming radicalized.
In February 2016, Splendor attended Zoolabs’ two-week music residency and, while there, I tracked half of the songs for grEAT aGAIN. 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.
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. For the longest time it was a mystery to me, calling through the ether from the other side of history. I wrote the lyrics after 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.
“Strange…” I said.
I didn’t take it seriously at all. Like everyone, I was amused. But 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 holocaust stalks our conscience all the closer in dark 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.