Each week in God and Country Music, Nick Rynerson gives country music a chance and examines the world of Americana, folk, alt-country, and popular country music.
I listen to a lot of music, especially Americana music. And I am usually not too terribly particular when it comes to tossing something into the CD rotation in my truck. Most records come and go within a few weeks, but some stick around for weeks on end. I can’t always say what makes a record different for me. Sometimes it’s just outright quality, but that isn’t always it. Sometimes high quality records fail to capture my attention—heck, OK Computer got shelved after about three days, but I have a free Uncut compilation from 2004 that I haven’t gone longer than a month without listening to. Maybe it has something to do with how the music speaks to me where I am when I start listening to it, maybe it has something to do with song writing, or maybe it’s all chance.
Five years ago this spring, I first heard Kasey Chamber’s single “Rattlin’ Bones” playing on my local alt.country radio station as I was driving to high school (yes, central Illinois has an alt.country radio station). I ended up being late for class because I had to finish the song! I just wanted to hear it again, just once more even. I had a hunch that it was Kasey Chambers, one of my favorite musicians since childhood. Chambers is an Australian alt.country singer with uncanny songwriting chops that I first heard when my dad played her music for me when I was kid, when we would drive around and listen to music in the car.
“Rattlin’ Bones” wasn’t a typical Kasey Chambers song though. This song was special, even for her. Earlier Kasey Chambers was great but “Rattlin’ Bones” had an unexpected weight to it.
The album Rattlin’ Bones, Chambers’s first album with her husband (and equally brilliant songwriter Shane Nicholson), was set to come out in the States later in 2008, and I went to Best Buy that very Tuesday and picked up my copy. Since then, the album has not come out of my truck. I’m serious. It’s coming up on five years and Rattlin’ Bones is still in circulation.
Rattlin’ Bones was just what I needed at the time. I had just become a Christian a few months before, exiting out of total secularism. Naturally, as a music lover, I was wrestling with the role of music in my faith. I was trying really hard to like Popular Christian music because I assumed that it was good for my soul (and sometimes it is), but I didn’t want give up the music I loved before knowing Jesus.
Rattlin’ Bones played a significant role in my understanding of how “secular” (as Christian radio might call it) music can have spiritual themes. But Rattlin’ Bones is far from secular or spiritually unmindful. The album is full of songs about the soul. “Monkey on a Wire” is a song about hidden vice, painting a vivid and uncomfortable picture of wickedness shrouded in virtue. Nicholson and Chambers paint an eerie picture when they sing the line “Walkin’ like Jesus/ with voodoo in their eyes”—it’s like getting to see a hardened, religious heart on its way to apostasy.
Between the songs “The Devil’s inside My Head,” “Your Day Will Come,” and “Woe Is Me,” the internal and external spiritual struggle that comes standard with human life is expressed with both magnificent songwriting and musical weight. The album possesses a tangible auditory heaviness that can only be attributed to a perfect combination of minor key tonality and spiritual depth. The talk of hellfire isn’t hopeless despair but beautiful, comparable to the stories of Flanney O’Connor in sublime morbidity.
But Rattlin’ Bones is nowhere near a hopeless ode to darkness. Mixed in the heaviness are songs of sublime beauty and others that are simply a lot of fun. “The House That Never Was” is loving, pleasant, and touching, and “Wildflower” can only be described as tender and vulnerable. While the rip-roaring “Jackson Hole” is an outdoorsy, foot-stomping ode to the outdoors. And while the songs may not seem to fit together, they fit together perfectly, spanning the range of human emotion and spirituality.
I have a list in my head of CDs that I am going to play in the car with my children when I become a father. The list features The Clash’s London Calling, Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home, Old 97’s Fight Songs, and Kasey Chambers’s & Shane Nicholson’s Rattlin’ Bones, among a myriad. To get into my list of “albums that I am going to introduce my children to at an early age” list, it’s got to be something that helped shape me. And I cannot think of an album that shaped my first year in Christendom quite like the magnificent Rattlin’ Bones. Chambers and Nicholson are still putting out albums, and their newest, Wreck & Ruin, is quite good. But Rattlin’ Bones will always hold a special place in my heart.