This Songwriter Traced America By Recording a Song in Every State
C.J. Boyd’s album ‘Kin Ships’ documents a tour that spanned a decade and all 50 states (and then some). Today, he explains 13 of those tracks, taken from the sampler ‘States I’ve Called Home,’ streaming below.
Photo by Tracy Redman
C.J. Boyd knows the road. He’s spent the last decade and change without a permanent home, on a cross-country journey he refers to as “the InfiniTour.” After a stint living in Nashville in his early 20s, he decided to head out on tour playing his long, languorous and aching songs. He’d stop when he got sick of it. First in an old Ford that’d once been used as an ambulance then in another van he named after Del Griffith, John Candy’s character in Planes, Tranes, and Automobiles, he drove and drove, stopping only to book more shows. He’s still not tired of it yet.
“It has never really felt sustainable,” he admits. “But there's something funny about feeling like something is unsustainable for a really long time. For the first several years, I thought I would have to stop the tour at any moment, but eventually you realize you've been saying that for years, and so there must be something sustainable about it.“
Adding to the wildness of Boyd’s existence the past few years is a mammoth project he undertook to document and celebrate the InfiniTour, which ultimately became a four-hour record called Kin Ships. Boyd doesn’t do things easily, so this isn’t just a set of the songs he was writing or playing over the time. He set up a series of formal rules for himself.
First, there are 51 songs on the record, one for each of the states he’s played in over the tour (plus D.C., and a bonus track that celebrates the “Outlying Territories of the US Empire”). Every song is a cover of a band from a different state, with the caveat that to choose a song Boyd had to have shared a bill with the act over his years of travel. There was also the added wrinkle that the song must be recorded entirely in the state where the song was from, while Boyd was out on the tour, which led to some strange, improvised recording situations. There’s a slow, droning version of Dirty Projectors song tracked in a grain silo in Buffalo, an existential ballad recorded in an A&W parking lot in Wyoming, and a meandering bass-led instrumental recorded in a bathroom at a Travel Plaza off I-95 in Delaware.
As such, it’s a travelogue of his time on the road—a moving depiction of his time criss-crossing the country, with arrangements and instrumentation as movingly gnarled as the journey. But Boyd is clear that it’s not a celebration of America, at least not in the way you’d think. In the intro of the book, he has a section called “Bullshit Patriotism,” in which he clarifies that he has “absolutely no allegiance to the US or any government.”
“Bill Hicks jokes about the idea of being ‘proud to be an American’ and says, ‘well, my parents fucked here, so I guess I'm pretty proud.’” Boyd says. “I think if I were born in another country, and I managed to tour for this long, I might have used something else for the framework of the album.”
What’s more important the connections he feels to the people in this country. His mom and sisters live in California. He has friends in Texas, Washington, Illinois, New York, and Arizona. So in a way, to gesture toward the art that has been produced within these borders is to celebrate those relationships and connections—the kinship, so to speak—more than it is to celebrate the places themselves.
To that end, Boyd asked friends to help him out when it made sense. A book that accompanies the record thanks 169 musicians, 89 engineers, and 93 people who allowed him to use a space to record, “along with 57 locations where I didn’t get permission.” Kin Ships is expansive, ambitious, and the result of a slow accumulation of years of work, love, and interpersonal connection. If it’s a little hard to keep track of the moving parts, that’s understandable.
As a way into this mammoth effort, Boyd and Joyful Noise—the label that’s issuing the full record on February 8—are releasing a 13-song sampler called States I’ve Called Home, which is streaming in full today. Below, Boyd explains the stories behind each of the recordings, each of which is an example of how rich with narrative and meaning this record can be.
“People / Halfsleeper” by Dilute / Chelsea Wolfe (California)
California is where I grew up, and I am biased in its favor. That’s one of the reasons that it’s one of three states where I really recorded two songs mixed into one.
My cover of Dilute’s “People” was significant for me, not only because Dilute is one of my favorite bands of all time, but because it was maybe the first show I ever played with one of my favorite bands of all time. Before that, I played with my friends, and I liked their music for the most part, but Dilute was on a pedestal for me, and I could hardly believe I got to share a bill with them. I still talk to some of the guys to this day, and it’s different now because I’ve (more or less) gotten used to it, but when I was 22 and got to meet them, I could hardly contain my glee.
Honestly, “People” might be the only song of theirs I thought I had any chance of pull off. The way I do it, it’s slow and sad and rolls in like a tide. I tried a few things, and most of it was a pretty resounding failure. But “People” as an extended intro to Chelsea Wolfe’s “Halfsleeper” works to combine two very different relationships into one sentiment. I feel like I should say that I don’t really know Chelsea very well, on a personal level. I love her music, and I’ve been able to see her perform twice.
A couple years ago, we played together at Treefort festival in Boise, Idaho. For the purposes of this project, and I talk about this in the introduction of the liner notes, I don’t usually count playing a festival with someone as “playing with them.” Because some festivals, like Treefort, have hundreds of bands, and it’s not the same level of intimacy as sharing a bill at a regular show. But I decided to make this one exception in the case of Chelsea Wolfe because I love her music so much. But that’s one of the reasons I wanted to combine it with “People.” “Halfsleeper” is right on the edge of being a cheat, in terms of the criteria of this project, but nobody can say I cheated with “People,” which is also a less well known band I really want to introduce to more of my listeners.
“Little Warrior” by Eleanor Murray (Washington)
Washington was also a hard state to choose a favorite song. Karl Blau is a favorite songwriter and a good friend, so he might have been a good choice. And I love Lindsay Schief’s music, so that was a consideration too. And Benoît Pioulard for that matter. All so great, how can I choose?
“Little Warrior” ended up being the very first track of the album because it sets the tone so perfectly for the journey that lies ahead. And this happened in the decision-making process for a few states—was that I decided I really wanted Karl Blau’s gorgeous buttery baritone voice on the track. In general, I decided not to have people sing or play on covers of their own songs, so I sometimes balanced whose song I wanted to cover with who I wanted to appear on it. It was a secondary concern, but it’s no coincidence that Karl, Lindsay, and Thomas all lend their considerable talents to this track.
“Boulevards” by Dixie Dirt (Tennessee)
Tennessee is where I lived when I really started learning how to tour. And back before I was on permanent tour, that usually meant trading shows. It’s one of the things I miss most about living in a consistent place—the ability to host folks, set up a show for them, give them a place to crash, feed them, all that good stuff.
Dixie Dirt were from Knoxville, and I can’t remember if they had me there first, or if I hosted them in Nashville first, but both happened pretty early on. I remember the contrast because in Nashville, I was just getting started and had a pretty small following, whereas they were bonafide rockstars in their hometown of Knoxville. The show we played there together was packed and rowdy and fantastic. Not so much at the Nashville show. But they were good sports about it, and knew it was a different situation.
I picked this song for two reasons. First, because it expresses this love/hate relationship with one’s hometown, which I really feel, even being from a small town in central California, 2000 miles from Knoxville. The other, more significant reason I chose the song was for the chorus at the end of the song, which, to me, is basically an anthem for the frustration of being someone who dedicates their life to art in a culture that pays a lot of lip service to art, but is shallow in allocating any resources to it.
Art programs are always being cut from public education, and we know when we get into this racket that it means a life of poverty and scrounging. I’ve done enough traveling to other countries to know it can be different. In Canada and much of Europe, musical endeavors, like other arts, are subsidized by the government. Tours receive public funding, as do festivals and recordings. I’ve never seen anything like that in the US, and to me it’s a defining feature of how we’re organized as a society. We have billions for bank bailouts and trillions for military spending, but we generally won’t spend a dime of public money on music. The DIY scene that I traverse is very much a response to that. We pass a hat at shows. We try to make enough money to cover travel, and it doesn’t always happen. And as a touring musician, you know that’s what you’re signing up for. Anyway, I love the duality of this song. It’s joyous and sad at the same time. We’ll take what we can get, and we’ll love it, even though it’s kinda bullshit.
“Not Having Found” by Dirty Projectors (New York)
The one show I played with Dirty Projectors was over 10 years ago, before Rise Above or Bitte Orca made them a household name. At that time, and still today, my favorite album of theirs was The Getty Address. It’s such a weird album. There’s some story that goes with it, which I don’t entirely remember, but which I know involves Don Henley, and possibly some time travel. But back then, I occasionally did a very loose cover of “Not Having Found” at shows. There’s just one line in the whole song, but it seemed to sum up my life to such a magnificent degree, I knew I had to put it on this album.
“Maybe the truth in searching is not having found,” is basically the theme song of permatour. Folks who don’t realize I live my whole life on the road now will ask me, so how far are you going? “No idea,” is usually my answer. Hope not to find out any time soon. It sounds cliche, but destinations are overrated. Also, for this song, I was fortunate to record the vocals in some amazing old grain silos in Buffalo, New York. My buddy Kevin sometimes puts on shows there, and he let me get in there and sing my heart out for quite a while. We’re talking a 20 second delay in some of them. So what might sound like some post-production reverb on here is just that natural reverb of being in a grain silo.
“Ships” by Pillars & Tongues (Illinois)
One of the biggest challenges to making a 4-hour album—one I recognized from the very beginning—is making sure it doesn’t get monotonous. As songs came together, I also started looking for different relationships between songs, and different relationships songs could have to the disc as a whole or the project as a whole. CDs don’t have sides of course, but as I was figuring out the track order, I thought about the album in terms of sides. Side A of Disc 3 has a particular arc because I connected all the songs, made them all kinda one big piece with six movements. All of these songs revolve around the idea of sea travel.
The only pause between any songs on this side occurs just after the Pillars and Tongues song “Ships.” but even that pause makes “Slow Passage” almost an addendum to the block of segued songs. Of the six, there are three that talk about ships explicitly: “The Ballad of Paper Ships.” “Horses,” and “Ships”. And I tried to echo that in the book by making the photos for Wisconsin (“Horses”) and Illinois (“Ships”) mirror each other. Those photos were both taken on Lake Michigan, on either side of the border, about 30 miles apart. And those two photos are made into a composite on the album cover.
“Ride Blind” by Circuit des Yeux (Indiana)
In some ways, Kin Ships is my attempt to write an autobiography using only pre-existing songs. I only chose songs that I wish I’d written, that express some part of me or my perspective that I never have expressed myself. “Ride Blind” is the perfect example of that because it expresses the ambivalence I feel about being a nomad. “Calling out to every rover / The path you seek will soon be over / Do you roam for the end? / Do you roam to transcend / The space between?”
I often ask myself, what drives me to keep touring, exploring, moving incessantly for over a decade? Is it the inherent meaninglessness of our sedentary institutions? Do I fully expect our destructive and unsustainable culture to collapse within my lifetime, making any investment into the distant future entirely futile? Yeah, maybe. but I also love that the song asks “Are you blind like me?”, acknowledging how even the critical perspective lacks any real meaning or wisdom. Haley’s lyrics resonate deeply with me, and felt immediately personal the first time I heard them.
I don’t want to give away too much, but this is one of 7 songs on the album that have a small portion of lyrics imported from a different song that is relevant to that state. Find them all and I’ll send you a prize.
“Silver Silk” by Nelly Kate (North Carolina)
There are a few songwriters on this list that will be reasonably well known. But a lot of my favorite songs on here are those by more obscure artists I want more of my friends and fans to hear for the first time. Nelly Kate is one of my dearest friends and all time favorite songwriters. This song comes from her album Ish Ish, a remarkable masterpiece. When I met Nelly in 2011 or so, she was working on this album. I had met her at a show in Charlottesville, Virginia, and instantly loved her music.
I had been running a little label for a year or two at that point, so I asked if I could release her upcoming album. There aren’t a lot of albums I’ve listened to more in the last decade, so when I decided to do this project of recording a song in every state, the only questions I had about Nelly’s music was which of her songs I would try to do justice, and whether I’d count her as being from Virginia or North Carolina, since she’d been bouncing back and forth between those for a while. What I love about Nelly’s music more than anything is how she manages to make very accessible songs, essentially pop music, and yet they are so heartfelt and earnest, and poetic.
“Hellbent and Heaven Sent” by Tree Branch Twig (Iowa)
While I recorded most of my bass and vocal parts on this album, it was fun to occasionally work with other engineers in special circumstances. Those circumstances usually meant, among other things, that the engineer [was] working for free. I know from the start that with a 51-song, 4-hour album, I wouldn’t be able to afford to pay for studio time, and that limitation set the tone for most of the album, since it meant getting creative and resourceful about how and where and when I recorded.
Sometimes that meant an In-N-Out bathroom in Sacramento, or a rest area in Maryland. But in Iowa, I lucked out because while touring with Sister Grotto, we stopped through Davenport to do a Daytrotter session. This not only meant that I got to have the main body of the song recorded with Mike Gentry, but I also got Madeline Johnston to sing on it. Daytrotter doesn’t do overdubs, so I had to add some stuff a little later (Bob Bucko Jr and Curt Oren in Dubuque, Ursula in Williams, and later my vocals in Iowa City).
“Ash into the Sky by Benoît Pioulard (Michigan)
I met Thomas Meluch (aka Benoît Pioulard) years ago when we happened to share a bill at the Nightlight in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. We stayed in touch and he became someone I always see when I’m in Seattle. But he’s originally from Michigan. What has always amazed me about Tom’s music is that, even though he plays experimental music and treats texture of the utmost importance, his lyrics are usually dense and intricate, and incredibly precise. His lyrics remind me of James Joyce, not so much in the style but in the painstaking attention to both meaning and sound.
And this is all the more remarkable because I’ve loved Tom’s music for a long time, yet never particularly knew what any of his songs were about. That may be partly because I have historically been less of a lyrics person than an music person. But it also says something about his lyrical style, and how the lyrics, for all their delicacy, are often buried under layers and layers of beautiful sounds.
“Car Wreck” by Haley (Minnesota)
While I definitely chose songs based on how they expressed sentiments with which I could relate, there are lots of places where I changed this or that line to match my own perspective or experience better. For instance, in “Lessons From What’s Poor” by Bonnie “Prince” Billy, I changed the line “That’s what God has put me for” to “That’s what I have come here for” because I’m a staunch atheist, and that line just wouldn’t be true coming from me.
There were little things like this throughout the album. Usually some detail that might not be central to the meaning of the song, but is personally significant to me. One of those little changes occurs in “Car Wreck.” The original line is “Reaching for the whiskey flask,” which I changed to “Reaching for the thing I lacked.” Admittedly, this one took some finessing, and it was a while before I came up with a suitable change.
But the fact is, I haven’t had a sip of whiskey probably since I was a teenager. Never cared for the stuff. I don’t really drink alcohol in general, but even when I very rarely do, it would never be whiskey or anything in that whole family of beverages. So it just felt fake for me to say I reached for a whiskey flask. Also, and this is nothing against Haley, but whiskey is just so “cool” I really didn’t want to mention it in a song. The way punks and cowboys have both been sold this idea of the badass who smokes and drinks whiskey has always seemed like some world class marketing maneuver to me, and I want no part of it. I try to avoid the “cool” image at all costs, as I’ve never found it honest, and it’s almost always selling something. If I was going to provide free advertising for a beverage in one of my songs, it would probably be some kinds of juice or tea. But it didn’t really sound right to say “My hands groped for my pockets, reaching for the juice flask.” So I went a different direction with it.
“Uncanny” by Sister Grotto (Colorado)
Madeline Johnston (aka Sister Grotto, aka Midwife) is one of my favorite musicians and one of my favorite people period. We’ve made music together a few times and toured together once, and I’ve loved hearing all the breathtaking music she’s produced over the years and continues to. Of the 186 guest musicians on the album, I’d guess somewhere around half of them were recorded by me while I was with them in the relevant state, and the other half either recorded themselves or had someone else do it for free.
In some cases, I had an idea what I wanted and communicated that them, but most of the time I just sent them the track and told them to go nuts. There was the understanding that I would reserve the right to edit things the way I saw fit, but I wanted them to feel free to do whatever felt right to them. And sometimes this freedom changed the song in a drastic way. Case in point are the contributions of Julia LiBassi (The Raven and the Writing Desk) and Gwen Wolfenbarger (Seal Eggs). I wanted Gwen to sing on the track and to play harp, and I knew it would be fantastic, but I had no idea the direction she’d take it, layering up harmonies upon harmonies that set the tone for all contributions to follow. (There are 8 guest vocalists on the track, most of which came after Gwen).
And even though Julia was the last one to send me her part, it once again changed the whole tone of the piece. Rather than sing along with the lyrics, she treats her voice more like an instrument and weaves in and out between the bass guitar parts. There are certain contributions to the project that I loved so much I wanted to listen to them on their own rather than as an accompaniment to what I’m doing. And so I actually compiled a playlist of what I call “demixes”, basically a mix of the track with all of me taken out, so that it’s 2 or 3 other musicians who didn’t hear each other’s parts, playing together. The one I did for “Uncanny” features Kate Warner, Gwen, and Julia. It sounds very little like the final mix of the song, but it’s utterly beautiful and something I listen to quite a bit on my own. Might release a handful of these some day. We’ll see.
“Circumnavigation / The Highway” by Balmorhea / Peter and the Wolf (Texas)
I think a record about life on the road should be something you want to listen to while traveling. Just seems logical. And I had to combine these songs by Peter and the Wolf and Balmorhea because they have each written one of my favorite albums to listen to while driving. “Lightness” by Peter and the Wolf is a song about the road, made on the road by one of the most well traveled musicians I know. Balmorhea is a band I’ve toured with, and whose instrumental music puts me in just the kind of headspace I like to be in when I’m playing music, where thoughts are swirling around, but nothing is particularly urgent or focused. And so I love to put their music on when I’m driving through the desert and just let the colors of the southwest swirl around the sounds while I take in the majestic beauty.
“Rolling Home” by Nathan Moore (Virginia)
Finally, there were some songs whose ability to express my specific experiences were uncanny. There’s a line in “Rolling Home” that goes, “I rode the road, New York to San Francisco. Took ten years to make it to the Shenandoah, and quite a few cars.” Now, as Nathan means it, he’s talking about the 10 years he spent traveling around before returning to Virginia, where he grew up. For him, this song is about the end of a nomadic period and a homecoming. But for me, whose home is the road, I took the song in a different way. I love that he says 10 years, and that I was recording this album to celebrate my 10 years of perpetual tour.
When I sing “I can’t believe that all I’ve seen is over,” I mean it in a different way. I really mean I can’t believe it. I won’t believe it, and so I won’t let it be over. For me, there is no homecoming. I grew up in Santa Maria, California, but there’s nothing for me there now. My mom moved to a different nearby town, and my dad passed a few years ago. I resonate with certain cultural norms in California, but I’m far more at home on the road than I can imagine being back there now. So I interpreted the song to be “rolling home” in the full sense of still at home while rolling.
C.J. Boyd's Kin Ships is out February 8 on Joyful Noise. You can pre-order it here.
Colin Joyce is on Twitter, dreaming of the open road.