Time tells the truth

Back on the farm with Gregory Alan Isakov

Credit: Glenn Ross

He may be one of this decade’s leading roots music artists, but Gregory Alan Isakov keeps one foot in the past. On his new album Appaloosa Bones, the celebrated Boulder singer-songwriter fills pop-up boom towns and misty villages with characters as at home in last night’s neon as they may have been in the moonlight 150 years ago. 

“A lot of my writing has these characters, this world where I write from where the land is a living thing and all of these elements are living things,” the South Africa-born artist says of the anticipated follow-up to his dreamy 2018 LP Evening Machines

But Isakov’s latest offering benefits from a lot more than nostalgia. Produced by Andrew Berlin and Isakov, and featuring guest shots from Grammy Award-winner Aoife O’Donovan and longtime collaborator Bonnie Paine of fellow locals Elephant Revival, Appaloosa Bones generates its kinetic energy with waves of rolling keys and tender acoustic guitar tones filtered through the perspective of one of the region’s most treasured songwriters.

“Every time, I’m like, ‘I’m gonna make this kind of record,’ or I’ll hear a record that’s so inspiring, and I’ll be like, ‘Yes, I wanna make a record in that vein,’ and then the songs just tell you what to do,” he says. “And they’re like, ‘Fuck you, I don’t care what you think. Now, we’re gonna make a super sleepy B-side record and you don’t have any say in it.’” 

Recorded at Isakov’s home studio on his Starling Farm east of Boulder, Appaloosa Bones — named after the Appaloosa Grill on Denver’s 16th Street Mall, where he cut his teeth as a performer — features songs decades in the making that were simply waiting to find a home. But Isakov says the craft of songwriting is about more than reaching a baseline level of proficiency and collecting the music as it comes.  

“It’s not like you write a great song that works and now you’re good at it, and now you can write another song,” says Isakov, eight albums deep into a career spanning two decades. “You’re always trip reset every time — and that’s what I love about it. Time’s elusive, and what you think is great, a little bit of time sitting on it will tell you the truth.”

‘Appaloosa Bones’ by Gregory Alan Isakov is out now via Suitcase Town Music.

‘Do I still feel something?’

The truth took its time on Appaloosa Bones. Take, for instance, “Before The Sun,” a banjo-driven number that stretches back to Isakov’s early 20s. Like many of its siblings on his new LP, the song gestated for a number of years before he finally blew off the dust and dragged it into the light. 

“I changed the oil on [those songs] and took out the high school journal vibes, but I really wanted to honor some of the songs I just play all the time for myself,” he says. “I didn’t know if anyone was going to like it, but I wanted to just really take a look at all those, and [‘Before The Sun’] is one of the ones that made it. It was that gauge … ‘Do I still feel something? Oh, yeah — yeah, I do.’”

But the 11 tracks on Appaloosa Bones owe their existence to more than simple longevity. As the equine album title suggests, the inspiration for many came from Isakov’s passion for agriculture and animal husbandry. The story of vulnerability and unrequited love told in album closer “Feed Your Horses,” for example, grew out of his time spent caring for alt-country star Brandi Carlile’s horses while the two worked on Isakov’s 2009 classic This Empty Northern Hemisphere  

“I was like, ‘That’s such a country song,’” Isakov says of his time tending to the animals on Carlile’s Washington property while she handled press for her landmark album The Story. “I was in her barn with a bunch of old guitars, and I was like, ‘OK, yeah. That’s what I’m doing today.’”

Of course, that on-the-farm sensibility can also be found a bit closer to home. Standout track “Watchman” is one such work, spinning a tragic love story from local origins. The song itself evokes the sepia tones of an Appalachian murder ballad, but its roots trace back to a coyote problem on the artist’s Boulder County farmstead. And in true Isakov fashion, these homespun details give way to a profound life lesson greater than the sum of its parts. 

“I would just sit up all night with a flashlight on the really bad nights because we kept losing lambs. … I wrote that in the middle of the night, just sitting up listening to coyotes and running out there with this really heavy-duty flashlight,” he says. “I think a lot of that made it into the song, but it turned out to be a song about how we’re always trying to fix things — relationships, systems, everything — and sometimes things that are broken end up perfect.” 

ON THE BILL: Gregory Alan Isakov with special guests. Sept. 2-4, Mission Ballroom (Denver), Dillon Amphitheater and Red Rocks Amphitheatre (Morrison). Sold out / resale only.

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