(Photo by Alexa Viscius)
"Kathy", I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh/"Michigan seems like a dream to me now"/It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw/I've gone to look for America."
America, by Paul Simon, recorded by Courtney Marie Andrews in 2020.
APPROPRIATELY, AS IT TURNS OUT, this phone call finds Courtney Marie Andrews on the road driving to New York. It’s a decent drive, 13 hours from her home in Nashville – who can afford to fly? Who can afford to rely on Amtrak? – and yes she is being safe. And yes, she is paying attention to the country around her.
The singer songwriter, whose philosophy and musical roots lie in activist folk in equal proportion to working-woman’s country, has written about class and emotional misadventure, love and collective action, resistance, and generational trauma, in an American context. And on two previous tours of Australia – Andrews is back next week, this time with Robert Ellis on the bill – she’s found it’s not just her old school gem of a voice that has connected.
Listening again to Andrews’ cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s America before this interview led me to thinking about something she’d said about her most recent album, Loose Future. She “wanted it to sound like that feeling of possibility when you’re driving down a coastal highway with the sun setting and you’re just like: things can be good.”
Now I wanted to get to something that is an often-unexplored subtext in a lot of what she is asked about her songs in the context of a crumbling social system in a threatened democracy: what does she know about and what does she like about America, as flawed and impossible to define, and as ever-changing as it is?
“I think that there is a cultural bravery across really all, even marginalised people. There is this inherent American bravery that is unique to Americans I feel like,” says Andrews. “And I like that there is this go-for-it mentality: ‘oh it’s a 10 hour drive, we’ll do it’; or ‘oh, we’ll start a protest because this isn’t working out for us’. It’s cool and I really appreciate that about American people.”
And closer to the road “I love how insanely beautiful it is”.
“We have some of the most amazing nature and I grew up in one of the most unique environments, Arizona, not far from the Grand Canyon. It never ceases to amaze me the nature that we have in this country.”
The land may have shaped the nation of supposed plenty, but it might be the absence of abundance that further shaped its people.
“America is going to be pretty scrappy because we don’t have anything socialised, so that’s something else I like, our scrappiness,” Andrews says. “For instance my friend got brain cancer in his early 20s and didn’t have health insurance, and the community, we all put our heads together, raised money. There’s that kind of mentality because we don’t really have support from government.”
Ok, I guess that is one way to find a ray of light in the thick clouds of the every man for himself American health system. Is it possible to like and dislike the same aspect of a community, a culture, a country?
“At the same time that I like we are scrappy because we have to be, I don’t like that we have to be scrappy,” she laughs ruefully. “Not every community in that structure is lucky: somebody might not have the friends that I have.”
It is, as she says, complex, especially when some outsider is asking you to explain or defend a country as vast and diverse and beyond definition as hers. But hey, no one forced her to be a songwriter.
Still, let’s narrow this down to her corner of the culture. As a poet and songwriter, as someone who grew up in Arizona, lives in Tennessee, travels everywhere in between, and is currently en route to the north-east, is there any kind of centrality or commonality in her artistic community?
“Scrappiness actually applies to that very thing, that spirit,” she says. “I’ve been asking myself the same thing because things have changed so much with the Internet and I wonder sometimes if I’m maybe, as a millennial, one of the last generations who truly did it the way that we did it. I don’t know, maybe it is the same way, but it was so DIY: you just kinda went out there and booked shows on MySpace or Facebook or whatever, or sent letters or whatever you did, and just hoped for the best. Slept in your car or on someone’s floor, legitimately pulling yourself up by your bootstraps."
Ooh, the ol’ bootstraps, that great scourge disguised as aspiration.
“That’s an obnoxious term but it is sort of the spirit of the early days of getting started in music in America, and I’ve noticed talking to European friends – I don’t know so much about Australia – but that just wasn’t the same mentality,” says Andrews. “I grew up in this world in America that was like you throw shit at the wall and hope it sticks; immerse yourself in whatever it is, meet people on the way. It’s such a country that revolves around driving, road-tripping, that I feel like it kinda inherently is that way.”
Speaking of the road, someone needs to focus now, so safe travels Ms Andrews, by the end of this trip presumably she'll be like Simon, “counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike”.
She laughs. “I’ve been counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike since I was 17 years old. But the cars are always different every time you come back.”
How about that for a philosophical metaphor! The cars are always changing on the New Jersey Turnpike of your life.
“it’s true,” Andrews laughs again. “If there’s anything that is certain it’s that things are going to change.”
So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine/And the moon rose over an open field … They’ve all come to look for America
Courtney Marie Andrews and Robert Ellis play:
Great Club, Marrickville, December 6
The Espy, St Kilda, December 7
Theatre Royal, Castlemaine, December 8
Archies Creek Hotel, December 9
Brunswick Ballroom, Melbourne, December 13
Eltham Hotel, December 14