Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered and mastered by Sam Patlove
It's an awfully ignorant thing to say, but even without being told that Big Harp lead singer Chris Senseney was born in "the Western Nebraska cow town of Valentine" with a population of less than 3,000 people, something would have told you that long before reading about him. What you hear in the words that he writes, which appear on the group's debut album from last year, "White Hat," and in a new song that appears here, is the kind of breathing room and some of that country laze that you just can't get into a soul any artificial way. Those who were born in places where they were outnumbered by the number of head of cattle in a five-mile radius come to terms with things in an entirely different manner. We've spent hours staring at cows lifting their tails into starched, loose U-shaped curves and taking the most serious, plopping shits and gushing pisses you've ever seen, actually marveling at the process and the quantity. We've spent the same amount of time watching hogs root around in the yard with their snouts, eating crap and dirt, being assholes to other hogs, chewing their tails off, killing other pigs, eating them. We've had hours and hours of going back and forth in fields, working the soil, planting or harvesting crops and we uses those hours -- we use all of that staring and watching -- to think about stuff that we can't when we're anywhere else. When you're around millions of other people, or living in a city of millions upon millions of other people, why would you ever think about the cannibalistic nature of hogs, the cool way that rabbits and pheasants run down the rows, dodging wheels and loud machines when they're spooked out of the overgrowth or the excretion processes of cows if you were spoiled by all the lights, cars, colors and people that you could ever want in those big cities?
Sure, you could allow yourself to be consumed by thinking about those whooshing past you, with their backpacks, briefcases, laptops and phones, disjointed from the space they occupy, just getting from here to there because they're so important and everything they're doing is of the utmost urgency. You could wonder about what their peccadilloes are and how they happened, but most of the time, these come down to people just acting poorly and making dumb decisions. We happen to ourselves all the time. The world doesn't beat us, we beat ourselves. Seeing that all it takes are a few decades of rain and snow, along with no new paint jobs, and the wood in a perfectly sound barn will begin to rot and tilt until it's an eyesore and needs to be bulldozed, is proof of that. So is watching cows and hogs and chickens, realizing that those tendencies are a connective tissue between animals and people. We kill our own too and we're assholes a lot of the time. These animals just don't know that they should be depressed about such things.
Senseney and his wife, Stefanie Drootin-Senseney (who plays bass and contributes backing vocals in the band), take in a world that's in shambles -- their words -- and they try to understand it and explain it, the best that they can. With Senseney, he's blunt and sees the shit for what it is. He sings, "Everybody wants to pull a statue down/Everybody wants to see blood." He observes that "a table grows cold when" a gambler's "pushing too hard on his streak" and that no one catches a break just because they need one. "White Hat" somehow makes us think about the connections between the beastly and civil parts of ourselves, and how we're so good at seeing them in others. Senseney offers these words in "Other Side of the Blinds," a brilliant, new story-song that we wished would never end, playing like Larry McMurtry rewriting a Cormac McCarthy book. He sings, "The sky is a boxer/With crowds in his eyes/And splashes of red across his cheek/Taking a jab to the back of the neck/Cause he wouldn't go down in the ring/Now the ground is turning all to mud/From an unpredicted rain/And the roots that fastened the hillside/Have long dissolved away/On the rough motel sheets/There's a couple sliding apart/Gathering their things so that they don't know/What his babies do in the dark." We still feel small and mostly unprepared, but exponentially wiser.