Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Julian Dreyer at Echo Mountain, Asheville, NC
What you're about to read is the essay that ran with Ben Sollee's first solo Daytrotter session in 2008, the last election year. After reading back over it, even while Sollee has written and recorded many more songs since then -- all of these, recorded last fall in Asheville, North Carolina, included -- but these sentiments still ring nicely.
This morning didn't start off slowly, but the New York Times still isn't in the house, so that's a problem. It would be a problem for Ben Sollee too. A morning would be a slow one without the word-laden pile of newsprint that's all fit to print. From the tones of his latest record -- Learning To Bend - excluding those that his cello makes, the 24-year-old troubadour from Kentucky was in front of the television last night, enraptured by the speeches given and the history made at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. He was soaking up all the words and the good feelings coming from President Bill Clinton (he still does all of the quirky things that Phil Hartman exaggerated back in the day), Joe Biden and Biden's son as they laid out their positions to a big room of adoring people. He probably found himself choking up a little when Biden addressed his charming as all hell, 91-year-old mother in the stands, detailing the story of his childhood stutter when she'd tell him how handsome he was and that his stutter was only there because, as she said, "Joey, you're just so bright that you can't get your thoughts out fast enough." He'd choke up because he's a dad too and it might have even happened when Biden's son called his dad his hero for saying, "Delaware can get another senator, but my boys can't get another daddy," following the tragic car accident that took his first wife and a child. It was all moving stuff and the kinds of frank words that Sollee - even though he's "just a songwriter" was inspired by.
There's no telling if the young man is a Democrat, but when he sings, "If you're gonna lead my country/If you're gonna say it's free/I'm gonna need a little honesty/Just a few honest words/It shouldn't be that hard," in his song "A Few Honest Words," he admonishes politicians who just give the highlights and reports that are softening the harsh realities with false optimism and words that they think people can swallow more smoothly. It sounds like he's talking tough about the current occupant, as Garrison Keillor calls President George W. Sollee is consumed with his opinions of the American Dream, just as Biden still is, his own dreams and the crumbling of a great nation is something that he likely follows, with down-turned eyes and ears, in the New York Times, Newsweek, Time and Atlantic Monthly. He might even have subscriptions and these ideas of worry, these ideas of substantial concern, that the world is becoming a place that isn't going to be suited for his children, worries him even more - though he wants a good and proud country to call his own too.
It's always a dicey affair to bring political views into the innocent world of music, but Sollee does it in the most tasteful way imaginable, sliding it in there as if it were part of a kiss, part of the juice of an exotic fruit. It doesn't feel pained, bitter or angst-y. It actually, always feels as if it belongs where it is. It feels like it's coming from a young man who hasn't completely given up the ship, thrown his hands up and started contemplating packing all of his possessions into storage somewhere and just moving he and his family to Europe to ride out the dismantling. It sounds like it is coming from a guy who genuinely believes that the American Dream is going to make a resurgence, against all odds. He fills his sails with this sort of booming hope. He jokingly suggests that they're going to bury us with our cars and he shuffles out a gorgeous rendition of the Sam Cooke song "A Change Is Gonna Come" - which has as much to do with now, the Democratic National Convention as it did with the civil rights movement and whites-only water fountains, hotels and restaurants. He applies his own cool-water sexiness to his messages, a sexiness that has nothing to do with sex, just a lot to do with an unwavering passion and songwriting chops that are going to make Sollee into a gamer.