An in-depth analysis of David Kraai's work by Damian A. Carpenter
author of Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and American Folk Outlaw Performance (Routledge 2017)

           Wherever you meet David Kraai, whether he’s performing in some vintage bar in his native area of New York’s Hudson Valley or down South where some of his musical influences once echoed off the Blue Ridge Mountains and across the West Texas Plains, maybe out West at Joshua Tree National Monument paying tribute to Gram Parsons’ flaming memory or standing on the edge of the world’s largest man-made canyon outside of Hibbing, Minnesota wondering how a kid named Robert Zimmerman could pull so much meaning from the shadow of such an empty void, wherever you might find David Kraai, he’s always at home in the bittersweet lonesomeness of memories that won’t fade and in the company of ghosts that won’t let go. He surrounds himself and his work with the melancholic grinning of what we call nostalgia.

           A review of Kraai’s first album, A Denim Fall, tells half the story—the pain—of the nostalgic feel of his work: “[I]t's clear that this is one cowboy who also likes to revel in his misery. It is this sort of emotional complexity that makes Kraai an appealing artist, one who has seen enough sorrow to know the difference between what is bittersweet and what is truly tragic.” But this summation misses the vital part of Kraai’s music that harnesses misery or tragedy in order to revel in its afterglow. It’s what Kahlil Gibran is talking about when he writes, “If in the twilight of memory we should meet once more, we shall speak again together and you shall sing to me a deeper song.” The deeper song, Kraai’s work, thrives on what comes after tragic memory: the warm recognition of looking back, remembering that there’s pleasure with the pain, good memories, experiences and lessons learned. It’s a story of nostalgia, the catharsis of memory and dream: the pain of something lost remembered warmly. Eight years, two more albums and a 45 rpm single later, Kraai has proven that he continues to be an appealing artist not because of the misery he seemed to revel in with his first album, but because of the deeper songs of nostalgia this reveling has created.

           There’s a consistency to the nostalgia Kraai surrounds himself with, even as he’s grown as an artist. If this is one cowboy who likes to revel in his misery, his work demonstrates that, in the end, this misery’s company is, as he sings in “Old Oak And Chicory” (from his latest album, Country Dreamer), “Black cat’s purr and jackets of sheep’s fur” and “Orange and white Christmas lights.” Anyone acquainted with Kraai’s first album may recognize these images: the large, stately black cat perched high in the center of the album cover and the orange and white Christmas lights that glow across the inside. And, on the inside of his second album, high & lonesome, one finds the design of a Tijuana throw rug, another warm image that made its way into “Old Oak And Chicory.” There’s the tin star (that you can also find on the inside of Kraai’s first album) which held such high nostalgic value it merited its own song, “Tin Roof Star” on high & lonesome, a memento to which he sings:

           Goodbye you tin roof star
           Please think of me from wherever you are
           I will keep yours if will you kindly keep mine
           So that our two stars can meet again in time

The prevalence of these warm, romantic (in the Wordsworthian sense of “overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility”) subjects makes it clear that, aside from “Old Oak And Chicory” being one of Kraai’s finest songs, its chorus sums up Kraai’s nostalgic milieu:

           Old oak makes you lonesome while
           Chicory'll keep you up
           All the miles on this old highway
           Don't make it any easier to say, "Goodbye.
           Goodbye, good luck."

           A Denim Fall is perhaps Kraai’s most explicit album in saying goodbye. While his following albums never lose sight of the nostalgic goodbye, they aren’t quite as raw in loss as the songs of A Denim Fall. Two songs, “Chuck’s Song” and “10-21 Blues,” show Kraai dealing with the loss of a friend to a drug overdose, but refusing to let his ghost be forgotten: in “Chuck’s Song” Kraai copes by affirming, “He did make it someway,” and in the blue-feeling lament with thoughts of Jack Kerouac and Shannon Hoon, lead singer of Blind Melon, (who both died on October 21st), Kraai emphatically states, “But you and me we’re gonna live forever.” And “Brouck Ferris,” a song inspired by the death of a friend’s father that sparked a rumination on the many fathers of friends and family who’d suddenly died, imagines the struggle to say goodbye amidst memories of grooming fatherly beards and straightening ties.

           There are other “goodbyes” as well, including the bittersweet farewells to love (a theme that becomes more pronounced in Kraai’s later albums): “I’ll Take You Home” and “Cracks In A Straw House” are songs which seem to hold onto the dream of true love even though the end always seems imminent. There’s also the “goodbye” of mythical American icons, in the archetype of Kraai’s Dean and Brando suffering a falling out that might be likened to Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” or the Springsteen models of Zero and Terry or Eddie and the unnamed narrator of “Meeting Across the River.” Maybe the falling out speaks to something more than a rift between friends. Maybe it’s because there’s always one who must overshadow the other in any relationship, and we are always drawn to the tragic figure that dies before we empathize with the one left standing. Either way, we find that in remembering them as they were (and are) and not letting them really live, they’re already dead as Kraai seems to suggest: “Things they change like the stars in our movies / People are dead even when they’re alive.”

           If having two American cultural icons appear in a song isn’t evidence enough that Kraai, overall, is interested in the nostalgic goodbye that must come with every fixing in memory, especially its prevalence in American culture, we can also look to the dusty goodbye of the American icon, the cowboy. In “Cowboys,” written as a companion piece to Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons’ “Wheels,” Kraai couples the myth of the open road and range as a self-defining journey that can only have its root in saying “goodbye” to everything that might tie a person down. And yet, there’s a draw to those who choose to do so, demonstrating Kraai’s overall concern with the nostalgic draw, to those things, places and people that draw us in even in their imminent absence. Raw loss recollected in twilight moments becomes irresistible. “Theme From Texas, America,” widening the scope even further from iconic persons to not so much a place, but an idea of a place, emphasizes this mood on the negative side of the equation where Texas stands for so much that has disappeared from the ideal, and “Things of America” fills the void with a strong optimism and nostalgia for everything that can’t be lost in wars “that separate and divide us.”

           But in Kraai’s own words (and as his later albums demonstrate) there’s something to be taken from the raw loss that pervades his first album. “The mood,” he says, is a “Sunday morning, jeans and t-shirt album. After listening to the album, there was nothing too loud or painful, but you went on an emotional journey: thought about love and lost-love, America, all of the things I’d been wrapped up in from broken hearts to rambling around the country.” It’s fitting that one of the songs that speaks the loudest on this album of goodbyes, rambling and loss is “Can You Hear My Guitar?” It’s as if Kraai invites you into the deeper song in the twilight after all has come to pass:

           Through your soul
           Through your heart
           How does it feel when it all falls apart?

           This is the beginning
           Yes, this is the start
           If you will listen now
           This guitar has got a heart

           Kraai’s second album, high & lonesome, says “How Do” to all of the goodbyes. Yet, it’s not an off-hand inquiry as such we hear in our workaday lives even if the song begins in this vein:

           “How do?” said the cowboy as he rode on the range
           “How do?” said the filly as the sun shone in her braids
           “How do?” said the birds to early morning dew
           “How do?” was our introduction too

“How do?” It’s a question that gets the listener past the veil of empty sentiment and concern with its persistent repetition to a place where one can really face an honest answer. And with each repetition, the answers, facing life stripped of convention and ceremony, become more honest:

           “How do?” said the whiskey as it burned going down
           “How do?” said the lost, broken crown
           “How do?” said your conscience right after the fact
           “How do?” was all that was left after that

But the “how do” we’re left with is everything after the veil is lifted. It’s the beginning of things to come, a new start, such as the album’s opening track, “The Girl Without Country,” presents. A narrative that could easily be a companion piece to “Can You Hear My Guitar?,” “The Girl Without Country” tells the story of a girl who says goodbye to a life she never felt at home in when she discovers country music. She says “how do” to a new life, finds herself and finds a home in country. And what better place than The Opry?

           Overall, high & lonesome may be about new beginnings, for Kraai the album also marked the beginning of him performing with a band, but these new beginnings are amidst songs of parting. A trio of songs, “Had Been,” “You Can’t Trust” and “Dead Again,” dwell on the moment between goodbye and how do. In “Had Been,” we hear of sweet love that’s just gone sour, personified as a broken body with hard face and dirty hair. “This wasn’t who it had been” sings Kraai in the role of a retrospective and resigned man facing lost love. Written in the style of a classic country duet, “You Can’t Trust” demonstrates “a healthy lack of trust for the opposite sex,” as Kraai describes it. You can’t trust a man with a woman and you can’t trust a woman with a man. It’s a stalemate in the end, but one thing’s for sure, even if the two subjects of the song never work it out they’ll keep telling their tale. “Dead Again” is what happens when the two don’t take their own advice and keep subjecting each other to the pain of a relationship that won’t work no matter how many times they try. “Are we back to this?” Kraai asks with an eerie musical accompaniment, the relationship left out on the old road so long it has begun to spoil. But the song concludes on an almost hopeful note: “look up baby and try to see the light / I think there might be just a little light.”

           Following this trio is “Givingthanks Song,” the calm after the storm, just before the light begins to shine, sounding as if it’s from the inner recesses of the mind. It’s a simple song of thanks, a listing of things to be thankful for like cats, flared blue jeans, being home alone, the American Dream, hopes and fears: all of the things that remind us that there is indeed a little light, even on the darkest of days. In mood, this meditative hymn stands at the center of high & lonesome, which was originally conceived with the structure of a vinyl album to capture the feeling of high and low. “It’s like that high lonesome sound of country,” Kraai explains. “It’s pretty much how things we feel so deeply make us feel high and low at different points in our lives.”

           Again, it’s the nostalgic mood that makes its presence deeply felt amidst the high and low, a mood poetically rendered with an edge of dreamy danger in “Leading Ladies & Final Bows.” Kraai amply displays his poetic talents with this song, structuring it in the form of an acrostic poem. But if Kraai demonstrates his control of poetic structure here, “Rings Cannot Hold Them In” shows even better his ability to write lyrics that can stand on their own as poetry. Perhaps his most poetic song, “Rings Cannot Hold Them In” has a metaphysical impressionistic feel, like a Monet painting, and strong symbolism:

           She is the water
           And he is a hope
           They’ve traveled through time
           Across rivers and moats
           You can drop down a stone
           And see what begins
           Earthquakes might shake you but
           Rings cannot hold them in

We also find poetry in simplicity with “Cornflower,” a love song sparked simply by the sound of a word, and the aforementioned “Tin Roof Star.”

           Closing out high & lonesome is another one of Kraai’s finest songs, “Angels In Her Eyes, Devil In Her Grin.” It starts off with a catchy riff and opens like a fairy tale: “Once upon a time, not so long ago / I had happiness like some folks will never know.” But it doesn’t take long for the fairy tale to change its tune, as the title suggests and the chorus makes clear:

           Oh yes
           My heart she took
           I guess I should have stopped
           To take a look
           She’s got the angels in her eyes
           But the devil was in her grin

Another narrative of a failed relationship, the subject of this song still hasn’t lost the same bitter taste their parting left. Sometimes a broken heart doesn’t ever fully heal, but that’s where great songs so often come from.

           In 2011, Kraai teamed up with Amy Laber and they released a 45 rpm together. The single, “From New Orleans To The Moon”/“Border Song,” has the feel of a duet with Laber singing (with Kraai’s musical accompaniment) her song, “From New Orleans To The Moon,” about two musicians traveling, paying tribute to their musical inspirations and solidifying their new relationship to the point where she’ll go anywhere with him. The mood of Kraai’s song can be summed up with the chorus:

           I’m trying my best to do what I can
           To live under rules and still feel like a man
           Sometimes you gotta let down the ones you love
           Just to find out where you stand

Paired together, these songs are an optimistic answer to “You Can’t Trust.” The feeling in both songs is not only that you can trust, but you must if love is to mean anything at all. And paired together, Kraai and Laber have proven to be a wonderful duo, further displayed on Kraai’s new album Country Dreamer - which Laber contributes vocal and instrumental accompaniment on more than half of the songs.

           Although there is no fundamental difference in Kraai’s subject matter on his latest release, it is somewhat of a departure from his earlier albums. Many of the songs do carry the Kraai nostalgic mood; the recollection of twilight moments such as in “Old Oak And Chicory” or the wonderfully mellow twilight drive of “Dreamin’ With You” punctuated by Laber’s subtle, but entrancing harmony vocals. Yet we might recognize that it’s a more resigned nostalgia here as “Dreamin’ With You” opens:

           I’m taking the long way home
           Driving her real slow
           Easin’ ‘er in
           I seen that shooting star again

There’s no loss here; only relishing a separation because it gives pause to contemplate such a deep connection that one can still be “dreamin’ with you / wherever you are.” It’s not recognition of a home lost, but the feeling that home and her are everywhere.

           “Home Sweet Home” follows “Dreamin’ With You” in quite a fitting sequence. Originally inspired by Annie Oakley’s life, Kraai couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate title. The nineteenth century song of the same title was so pervasive in American culture during the time of Annie’s life that its sheet music could be found on almost any parlor piano, along with needlework portraits of the phrase hanging on those parlor walls. What’s compelling about this song is the inversion of nostalgia where home, perhaps through the voice of one of Annie’s old sweethearts, begs her to come back:

           Hey, Annie
           Would you take a stand for me?
           Now that the West's been won
           Tell me, “What is it you see?”
           'Cause around here things
           Have been going down, down, down
           So, Annie
           Hey, Annie
           Please come back to town

Annie won’t be swayed however, choosing to live free of domestic life, and perhaps we see her modern counterpart in “American Darling,” who “don’t need / nothing / but her hair / blowing free / in the wind / of emancipation.” But as in Annie’s song, there is still the sweetheart waiting back in town, stalemated between wanting her free and wanting her home.

           While Country Dreamer includes these more ambivalent, contemplative relationships, there’s still the good old fashion bitter relationship retrospective in the same mood as “Angels In Her Eyes, Devil In Her Grin.” “You Won’t Find A Better Man (To Treat You Right)” could be a coda to the song that puts the heartbroken subject on the offensive, while “Paris, Texas Twice” presents this offensive in an ultimatum:

           And the next time you want to drop me like something
           You better think twice
           'cause you might have been to Paris once
           But I've been to Paris, Texas twice

One cannot help but hear the gleefully bitter echo of Bob Dylan singing “Mama, You Been On My Mind” or “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” in these lines.

           Something explicitly new in Kraai’s subject matter on this album, which is, however, implicit throughout his work, is the mood of abandonment of the status quo, a call to let the chips fall where they may and let loose to save yourself from the confinement of workaday life and society. This mood might be summed up with the catch-line of “That’s Just The Way We Roll,” but “Gettin’ Dirty,” one of Kraai’s most rocking songs, driven along by Danny Louis (of Gov’t Mule)’s piano, is even more to the point: “sometimes dirty is better.” Why is it better? Kraai explains in “Nothing Left to Save”:

           Cocaine, pot, liquor and love are bound to make you sick
           Still you gotta inhale ‘em all ‘cause they could really do the trick
           Some folks are good and some folks are both but some folks they’re just plain bad
           Don’t judge your lover by their friends or chances are that you’ll be had

You might never know where you stand if you don’t follow the status quo, but at least you know you’ll be standing on your own.

           Part of the reason why Country Dreamer feels like a departure for Kraai is that the contemplation of lessons learned seem more explicit and rendered as the wisdom of experience as we see in “Nothing Left To Save”: “when you see your name on a grave / there’s nothing you can say / there’s nothing left to save.” Similarly, in “Straight Shooter” Kraai takes a bit of conventional wisdom and makes it his own:

           I picked up that bullet and put it in my pocket
           Life will keep coming at you, ain’t nothing you can do to stop it
           Now, games were good and fun when we were kids running through the sun
           But these lines and grey hairs, I keep track of every one

As we can see throughout Kraai’s work, he does indeed keep track of every line and grey hair of his experiences. There may be nothing left to save, but there’s still a lot to learn.

           This is perhaps the point of departure with this album: that everything, the songs, the album structure came upon Kraai naturally. In his previous albums, as Kraai explains, he had a sense of a “direct thematic and structural line through the songs externally (in the world, the recording process and the album composition) or internally (within the lyrics).” Instead of something conceived, this album was like a dream. “Everything just came to me,” says Kraai. “Out of my wildest dreams, and with a lot of perseverance, I put it all together and came out on the other side stronger, better and awakened… with the pleasure of having made an album with some of my heroes. It’s my best record yet and truly a dream come true! Dreams are like nostalgia - and these songs are about nostalgia, which is rooted in an eternal and timeless feeling that is not necessarily concrete. It’s founded in places, events and things, but becomes a new reality in our minds and thoughts. That’s true of albums and songs too. Art doesn't have a test in the one who created it; it can’t be complete without the audience.” Spend enough time in the twilight dreaming and you’ll find you’re not alone, and there are plenty of songs to sing.

© 2018