It seems like songwriting should be an entirely auditory process, doesn’t it? A songwriter might hear a sentence or phrase in passing, something so good it breaks through the white noise to become a lyric. Maybe he or she hears a succession of sounds that create a tune. But, sometimes songwriting can be about what you see, the things that make an impact when you look out a window or at a television or at what’s happening in the world around you. That’s how Houston songwriter Matt Harlan constructed, “Old Allen Road,” just one of the songs you might hear him play at Union Tavern Friday night.
The song is more than a year old now. Harlan has recently released a newer single, “The Time Is Now,” which features some heart-melting harmonies with wife Rachel Jones, a first-rate vocalist in her own right. But there’s something timely about “Old Allen Road” that calls for revisiting the track, released on 2014’s Raven Hotel. It’s a plaintive tale of love, prejudice, murder and regret and was easily summoned this week while watching people onstage promising to build large border walls. Before Harlan breaks down the song for us, we asked about the music that helped shape his own.
“I always loved music and got into writing pretty early, but I didn't start writing songs until my family moved to the Hill Country in the summer of '94," he says. "School hadn't started yet and I didn't know anyone, so there really wasn't much else to do,” he told us.
Harlan listened to rap, metal, R&B and a smattering of country music. During that formative time, he happened upon a half-dozen albums that informed what he does today, he says: stuff like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s So Far, The Lemonheads’ It’s a Shame About Ray and Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited.
“The next real shift came from discovering Gillian Welch, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark all at once in college," he explains. "Without Time (The Revelator) and Old No. 1 I would probably be playing in a cover band on the weekends. Now I'd say some of my big influences are mostly poetic storytellers like Lyle Lovett, Jason Isbell and James McMurtry."
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Those were the roots that grew into memorable career moments for Harlan, things like winning the Telluride Bluegrass Festival's Troubadour Contest, which meant playing for thousands while opening for The Decemberists. He was featured in the Anderson Fair documentary, For the Sake of the Song.
“That meant I got to meet Lyle Lovett a few times and even sing along on a PBS special with him and some other folks from the movie," he recalls. "Still, one of my absolute favorite moments was opening for Guy Clark a day or so before getting married. So basically, I can say Guy Clark played my bachelor party.”
“Old Allen Road” is a smart song with something meaningful to say, performed by a gifted artist. If Harlan had to perform a one-song set, this is the track we’d advocate for.
“Well, I'll definitely take a song any way I can get it, but I'd say that it's a mix of process and inspiration," he says. "With a song like 'Old Allen Road' it started with a flash of inspiration, but didn't turn into a song until I really sat down and figured out what I wanted to say. But with 'The Time Is Now' I just picked up the guitar and told myself, 'I'm going to write a song now.' Then I walked around my house with the guitar strapped on until I got a melody to stick and the words just started coming together."
Harlan then elaborates the process and inspiration that led to "Old Allen Road":
With 'Old Allen Road,' and with a lot of my songs, it all started with looking out the window. I saw a couple guys in a field clearing away and burning brush as I was riding to Memphis for a folk music conference. I knew immediately I wanted to put them in a song and so I wrote the first line. Then, I had nothing. And that nothing lasted for a while. I tried to make it about labor issues and failed. I tried to co-write with a friend and failed. Then, one day I saw Tom Russell on the Letterman show singing a song called, 'Who's Gonna Build Your Wall,' about the push to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. I agreed with the song, but I thought it was more slogan than art. That gave me the idea to write about what feelings might exist among people that this proposed wall would impact, rather than a snarky political statement,” he explains.
So, I made the workers Hispanic day laborers. And I made the crew boss a man who's in love with an Hispanic woman but spends each day with racist co-workers that treat laborers like dirt. So he's torn between condoning what he knows is wrong and doing what he has to just to get along in his world. I wanted to show that topics can be more complex than 'for' or 'against.' And I figured there was no better way to show how dark the views of wall supporters could be than to use death as a metaphor. Knowing that his crew got away with murder haunts the boss, but it doesn't change the world around him. That becomes my political statement - conflicted people often can't voice their concerns because the system they're worried about runs so much of their lives that acting out could literally kill them.
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Harlan says he gives audiences an abridged version of this origin story at shows. He’s had many tell him it’s their favorite track on the album. A new album is high on Harlan’s priority list. Having just done “The Time Is Now” with her, he’d like to return the favor of working on vocal arrangements and being inspirational in general and see Rachel release her own work. More immediately, beyond the Union Tavern show he’ll be playing mostly local shows the rest of the year at Dean’s Houston Songwriter Showcase, JP Hops House, Red Brick Tavern and the Anderson Fair New Year’s Eve show.
“I just feel very lucky to have been able to experience as much as I have in the music business. But I also feel like things are just beginning in some ways,” Harlan says. “Right now I'm trying to figure out what the next album will look like. With all the changes going on in the music industry, I don't feel like the standard approach works as well anymore. So, hopefully we'll try to do something more interactive and interesting with the recording and release of the next one.”
Matt Harlan performs alongside Kristal Cherelle and Her Band and Stevie Menjivar 10 p.m. Friday night at Union Taven, 435 El Dorado Blvd., Clear Lake. 21 and up; free.