Interview: S.G. Goodman Charts Complex Relationship With the South on New Album, ‘Old Time Feeling’
At first listen, the most striking aspect of S.G. Goodman’s new album, Old Time Feeling, is arguably her vocals. Whether tremulous and plunging on the first track, “Space and Time,” or growlingly rhythmic on the leading single, “The Way I Talk,” Goodman’s voice stands out from start to finish.
That voice is the product of an early act of rebellion from an artist whose musical identity is founded on unapologetic self-expression.
“I had vocal lessons for, I think, a month and a half [as a kid], and I learned some good exercise techniques -- which I do and don’t do, it just depends,” Goodman recently told The Boot over video chat. “But I quit because I felt like there was something happening ... In the formal training I was receiving for a short time, I was asked to enunciate things differently, or open my mouth more, you know. And I found that when I did do something that my teacher said was proper, it wasn’t me.”
While formal voice training wasn’t the place where Goodman learned the most about singing -- growing up in a small, intimate church filled that role instead -- it did teach her a lesson that’s critical for anyone pursuing a career in music: “It’s where I learned the most about ... sticking up for myself when I felt like someone was basically trying to whitewash what was natural and true to me,” she reflects.
On that front, Goodman found a kindred spirit in solo rocker, fellow Kentuckian and My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James, who produced Old Time Feeling, out Friday (July 17). “I think he was very committed to making the songs focused around my voice. He was very encouraging with that,” she remembers of the album-making process.
“He was pretty protective over making sure I was not overthinking what I was doing, but just trusted my instincts. Because, as he told me over and over again, there’s nothing wrong with them,” Goodman continues.
Goodman connected with James via their mutual friend, folk artist Daniel Martin Moore. Moore introduced them after both participated in Moore’s Pine Mountain Sessions, a massive compilation album that benefitted Eastern Kentucky’s Pine Mountain Settlement School as well as the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust.
“A seed was planted, and I had decided to go back home and work as hard as I could on making five songs sounds as good as I could get ‘em,” Goodman recalls. “So I fully demoed out five songs and sent ‘em to Daniel and asked, if he felt like he wanted to, would he send those along to Jim to see if he’d produce the record.
“And to find out, the boy just sent "Red Bird Morning"!” she crows with a laugh. “When I first heard that, I was like, ‘Well, shoot, you know, I put in a lot of work.’ I thought I might need a catalog, because that song doesn’t really represent my sound. It’s so stripped down.
"Anyway," Goodman adds, "to find out that he was willing just after hearing that was really funny and interesting.”
Haunting and grief-stricken, “Red Bird Morning” is an example of how Goodman’s songwriting melds personal experience, cultural resonance and a dose of Southern lore: a combination listeners will hear often throughout Old Time Feeling.
“I was writing it while going through a breakup, and you know, for some reason, I kept thinking back to leaving that person to go to the Standing Rock protests,” the singer relates. “And also, we had broken up, and then her grandmother had passed away, like, right afterwards. We were both close to our grandmothers, and I knew that was a very big moment. But at the same time, we weren’t in the right place to speak to each other about it.”
That death, however, is how the figure of a red bird became a theme in the song. “There’s old Southern wives’ tales that when a red bird appears, it’s a loved one who’s passed away there to visit you. That’s why I included it in the song, and why it became kind of the focus point,” Goodman explains.
While “Red Bird Morning” is certainly not the only tender ballad on Old Time Feeling, Goodman had reason to worry that James hadn’t gotten a representative sample of her work from listening to just that one song. She does grungy, swampy rock as expertly as she does a stripped-down, simple tune, as evidenced by “The Way I Talk," the first song off the album that she shared with listeners.
“The first verse is the same thing over and over: ‘I know what you’re thinking when you hear the way I talk,’” Goodman notes. The song speaks to how people perceive the various aspects of her musical identity, as a queer artist and an activist but also as a Kentuckian and farmer’s daughter -- and yes, as someone with a hearty Southern drawl.
“As if there’re not rural people here who know exactly the powers that be that are influencing their daily life,” Goodman relates. “[People] hear a Southern accent, and I feel like a lot of times they're just like, ‘You have to be ignorant.’"
Goodman’s activism and politics often put her at odds with the strong conservative contingent in her home state, but she’s not tempted to leave Kentucky. She grew up with a deep connection to the land, for one thing, and it’s also where her band lives. And, as Goodman points out, Kentucky has been the scene of some recent important national events, such as the Louisville Black Lives Matter protest, Charles Booker’s progressive bid for the Senate and moderate Andy Beshear’s narrow victory in the state gubernatorial race in 2019.
“Andy Beshear, who I would say is not my kind of Democrat -- and I canvassed for him,” Goodman reflects. “I’m very glad I was here, because I believe him being in office has saved a lot of lives [during the COVID-19 pandemic]. Someone could argue that, ‘Well, there’s such a conservative agenda in Kentucky, so if your vote really making a difference?’ In that case, it did.”
As a caveat, Goodman adds that she knows not everyone is able to safely stay put in their home state, and she doesn’t judge anyone who decides to leave theirs behind. “Your mental health, the fact that you could physically be in danger -- there are a lot of good reasons to [leave]," she offers. "But if you have the privilege to [stay], you know, I think it’s an effort not made in vain. And right now, I do."
Goodman’s complex relationship with the place from which she comes is at the crux of her album, and long before she knew what the record would be, when she first wrote "Old Time Feeling," she knew she wanted it to be a title track.
“If you Google "Old Time Feeling," when it comes to music, there’s lots of great songs with that title. It’s normally a phrase that makes one think of the good old days and nostalgia,” she says. “I think there’s a real complexity with being Southern because I feel like you can be so proud of where you come from and the people there, and also question some of the things that go along with that: question the history of your roots, and where you come from, and the structures that make Southerners Southerners.
"I kind of wanted to put a question on that: What should we glorify, when it comes to nostalgia?” Goodman notes. At the same time, she wanted to draw attention to a region of the country that often gets glossed over with stereotype.
“I’m trying to make a point that there are people in the South who are striving to make this place a safe place for everyone,” Goodman adds. “In that regard, if you’re speaking about ‘old time feeling,’ I’m not a part of it. And there’s a lot of other people who are working to break those generational cycles, who are not a part of that ‘old time feeling’ either.”
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