Milk Carton Kids: On ‘The Only Ones’ Album, Internet Trolls and the ‘Sticky Little Nugget’ of Musical Storytelling
When they first hosted the Americana Honors & Awards back in 2018, the Milk Carton Kids performed an original song titled "What Even Is Americana," a quippy, self-reflective musing on the state of one of music's most amorphous, omnivorous genres.
But after the release of their 2019 album The Only Ones, a project that saw the folk duo paring down their backing band a bit and honing in on the vocal harmony that's been at the core of the group since its inception, they seemed more interested in turning that question on themselves: What Even Are the Milk Carton Kids?
"It's not like I dwell on this, but I remember an early Internet troll that wrote about Milk Carton Kids on Twitter who said, like, 'These demos are great, but where does it go beyond that?'" recounts Kenneth Pattengale.
It's mid-February, and Pattengale and bandmate Joey Ryan are in their green room backstage at Nashville's Schermerhorn Symphony Center, polishing off dessert from catering and preparing to play as part of a tribute evening to songwriting duo Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. For the moment, at least, the Milk Carton Kids seem to be less interested in talking about the process of making their newest album, and more interested in talking about how it -- and their discography as a whole -- is received by their listeners.
In bringing up the "Internet troll" who interpreted their minimalism as laziness or lack of imagination, the band wants to talk about the difference between making music and making music for an audience. "The take-home is that all people come into listening to music with their preconceived worldview," Pattengale continues.
"Never mind the simple lesson of 'You're not gonna please everybody.' The guy points out a good point, which is that if you just write a song and then you don't do any thinking beyond that of how to frame it for an audience, you're maybe missing part of the process of finishing a song," he adds. "In the end, there's gotta be some difference between what Joey and I put out as a release, compared to, like, if we took a voice memo off our iPhone."
Ryan, who's been sitting on another couch and absentmindedly strumming a guitar for much of our conversation, chimes in. "I don't know, I think it's mostly on that troll," he muses.
"Nobody would have told [Ricky] Skaggs and [Tony] Rice that [their music] sounded like a bunch of demos," Ryan continues. "I think it's more of a reflection of that guy's conception of what music is supposed to be, that just makes him think that anything minimalist must be unfinished.
"Or Nick Drake's Pink Moon -- it's just him on the guitar, but it's one of the fullest-sounding records," he adds after a pause. "So maybe that guy was actually an astute observer of minimalist recording and just thought ours didn't live up."
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Perhaps. But hindsight's 20/20 for projects such as Pink Moon, which came out in 1972 and has had the benefit of being extolled as a minimalist folk masterpiece for decades. I ask the band if there's a way to know the difference between a demo and a piece of minimalist music before it's released, before it starts receiving feedback from listeners.
"Yeah, it's possible that Nick Drake hated Pink Moon. Maybe he had no more money. Maybe they could only record that day. You don't know," Pattengale reflects.
"There's some internal weird barometer for if you're proud of something you did," interjects Ryan.
"But it's also not that easy," Pattengale counters. "I wish people would reframe their points of view, because there's so much attention paid to what you're going for, and if there's anything that any of us have learned about life, it's that you don't ever get what you're going for."
In other words, the duo is a little leery of boiling down The Only Ones -- or any of their other albums, for that matter -- into a soundbite. They're hesitant to point to one idea or theme that the record is "about," even though they know it's natural for listeners to gravitate toward an overarching theme, a narrative arc or a crux of meaning at the center of a batch of music.
"You need it. You don't need it, but if there's a sticky little narrative nugget, it'll stick -- that's why it's called 'sticky,'" Ryan says. "Those little ideas that stick in your mind and float around, they give to you to tell somebody about an album. If you can say one sentence about it that catches someone else's attention -- I think the stories we tell about our art are little flags that we put on it, hoping they'll catch the attention of somebody as they fly by.
"Hey, look at you! You look sticky," he chirps, eyes lighting up as he turns toward the door.
In walks Old Crow Medicine Show bassist Morgan Jahnig, who is also on tonight's bill. "I apologize," Jahnig replies cheerfully, clearly unphased about being pulled into the Milk Carton Kids' philosophical rabbit hole.
An unexpected but fortuitous addition to the conversation, Jahnig knows a thing or two about creating a "sticky" piece of music. His band is responsible for "Wagon Wheel," a 2004 mega-hit so ubiquitous and larger-than-life that some bars and honky-tonks in Nashville got tired of hearing it and put up "No Wagon Wheel" signs on their stages.
The song went double platinum for Old Crow Medicine Show; Darius Rucker covered it (with backing vocals from Lady A) in 2013, and just a few days before Jahnig walked into the Milk Carton Kids' green room and joined the conversation, Rucker's version had been certified a whopping eight times platinum.
"Wagon Wheel" is an extreme example of what the Milk Carton Kids have been pointing out, which is that it's hard to predict what a song is going to be before it's released, reacted to and critiqued. In this case, the song wasn't even finished. You never know if Darius Rucker is going to come along and cover your song nine years later.
"Talking about afterwards, when is the story done being told? I don't think it ever is," Jahnig says.
"At a certain point, "Wagon Wheel" becomes not yours. Not in the way that your songs aren't yours and our songs aren't ours, because it always feels that way, but "Wagon Wheel" particularly. There's gotta be points where you were kept up at night going, 'F--king "Wagon Wheel','" Pattengale says to Jahnig. "Like, can you play a show without it?"
"Uh, it's interesting -- it depends on the show," Jahnig replies. "We've played, not a show, but we've played a bit without "Wagon Wheel." It's not often well-received. But I have to say that I never get tired of playing it. It's just one of those things. Like, 'Oh, we're back to "Wagon Wheel," gotta do this crap again' -- it's never been like that."
The band delivers their big hit almost every night, with a graciousness and energy that the Milk Carton Kids witnessed firsthand when the two acts were touring together. Recalls Pattengale, "It was used as one of the emotional peaks of the set toward the end, and you all were so obviously into it and not doing it begrudgingly, giving the audience exactly what they wanted but not in a forced way."
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For some artists, a larger-than-life hit that stands out from the rest of their catalog can become a sort of albatross. Plenty of performers get tired of playing their big song, or they want to be known for more than just that one song. And while both bands have seen fellow performers have that response, Jahnig says he's never felt that way.
"When somebody loves you for something, to not give them the thing they love you for, there's kind of a selfishness and self-righteousness about that that doesn't really sit well with me," he muses. "When you become a performer, it's necessarily less about you."
"You're there because other people are there," Ryan agrees.
Whether it's an internet troll who calls a band's early work too demo-like or Darius Rucker making an already massive hit even bigger, listeners' reactions to music become an essential part of that music's story. When the band is in the thick of working on a new musical chapter and looking toward releasing an album, at a certain point, they have to let go of the idea that they'll know when the music is finished.
Over the years, the Milk Carton Kids have realized that they aren't the ones who decide when the music is done.
"Periodically, you get a note from somebody who felt compelled to write to you that your songs -- they've been listening to your music, whilst ... whatever it is. The one we got this week was from somebody in chemotherapy," Ryan explains. "[They're] recovering, and they're in their bed and have been listening to our music a lot, and felt compelled to write us to let us know.
"I relate to the feeling of being so moved by somebody's art, so grateful for what it has brought into my life, that [I] felt compelled to just let them know that," he continues. "And I know how powerful that feeling is in me when I feel compelled to do that."
But garnering that response doesn't mean that a song is finished, Pattengale clarifies; rather, it means that the band accomplished their goal of creating powerful music that connects to people.
"That's how you know when it's worked," Pattengale adds. "But how do you know when it's done? It's an unanswerable question. There are so many factors."