I was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, a city on the western shore of Lake Michigan, and lived there the first 22 years of my life. I spent the next 25 years looping between Southern California and Middle Tennessee. In March of 2020, I found myself back in my hometown on what I initially thought would be a short, fun break from life’s normal grind while health experts got something called a coronavirus figured out. Little did I know, I’d be there the remainder of the year.
In the months prior to the world locking down, I’d felt called home, and I found myself thinking about a project I’d first begun tinkering with in the mid-2000s. I’d learned back then about a folk music preservation pioneer named Helene Stratman-Thomas and the hundreds of folk songs she’d captured for the University of Wisconsin and the Library of Congress in the 1940s. Like her more well-known colleague Alan Lomax did in areas like the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia, Stratman-Thomas traveled around Wisconsin recording people who could play and sing songs they knew—songs originated in or immigrated to the state that were then pollinated around the Great Lakes region by miners, loggers and river men. This was a history, a musical ancestry, I was unaware existed.
My original idea was to record an album of songs from that wonderful Helene Stratman-Thomas Collection, now housed at the University of Wisconsin, but soon found myself wanting to write original songs about my beloved home state. In the notes from her 1946 trip to my hometown to record Lithuanian folk hymns, Stratman-Thomas wrote: “The recording of folk music of a Wisconsin city such as Sheboygan should be a continuous municipal project.” Wisconsin River is my best attempt at satisfying her charge.
I’ve told Wisconsin stories before, of course. “Madison,” “Prairie Smoke,” “Tavern Town,” “The Rolling Hills of Trempealeau” were all set in America’s Dairyland, but this is the deeeluxe VIP tour.
A handful of the songs were written in the spring of 2020 as I traveled back and forth between my house in Nashville and my family home in Sheboygan in the early weeks of the pandemic. But the majority came during a full home-state reimmersion in a summer and fall that was simultaneously disorienting, maddening, tragic and beautiful. I drew on subjects and stories I already knew, and discovered some new ones as I moved around the state. I wrote them in a 1906 Prairie-style mansion in Wausau, at my cousin’s cabin in the Northwoods, in hotel rooms around the Wisconsin Dells, and in the bedroom I shared with my brothers growing up, where you can look out the window and see the bright moon rising over Lake Michigan.
Out that window, a pandemic still rages, and much is scary and uncertain. But here, at home, all is well. I hope it is at yours, too.
All my best,
January 21, 2021