“Homesteading represents everything wonderful and everything terrible about the United States,” says Rebekah Rolland. She’s talking about her new album, Seed & Silo. Sketched during her artist residency at the Homestead National Monument outside Lincoln, Nebraska, Seed & Silo is a study of the sod-house chapter in U.S. history.
“We have a very funny, romanticized view of homesteading as this thing that made us very strong agriculturally and otherwise,” Rolland says. “But it’s easy to forget the ways in which it was really a dark time.”
As a primary source for her songwriting, Rolland turned to the work of Nebraska-raised, early twentieth-century author Willa Cather whose parents were homesteaders. Of Cather, Rolland says, “She grew up in a town that was a melding of immigrants.”
Of Cather’s novels, Rolland says, “They touch on issues of mental health, women’s rights…there was a lot of racism, a lot of difficulty.”
A hundred years after the fact, Cather’s Nebraska inspires Rolland, who sees a modern America struggling with the same issues.
“What was different in the West is that people found themselves in these really isolated communities and they had to rely on one another,” she says. “There was a sense of community that didn’t exist elsewhere in the United States.”
Taking in Cather’s writings, Rolland thought the homesteads could create a great landscape for songs, so she alighted on Homestead National Monument just 75 miles from Cather’s hometown. Settling in, she began to write Seed & Silo among the rare sights of primeval prairie ecology.
“When homesteaders came they pulled all that prairie grass up so they could farm,” Rolland says. “Homestead National Monument is one of the few remaining places where they’ve restored that original prairie grass. It’s really beautiful. I felt very immersed and very quiet.”
From this quiet a spring of music came forth. Seed & Silo is a tender yet robust collection of roots melodies delivered on Rolland’s stainless vocals. Spanning character studies, prayers and transcendental haikus, each song relies on its neighbor to paint a vast portrait of hope, loss and perseverance on the prairie. It is delightful listening by design. Rolland’s spoonful of sugar.
“Music softens people and makes them more open to what you have to say. It’s a bit more universal way to express ideas that are controversial,” Rolland says.
Apparently effectively, as even though Seed & Silo addresses divisive and sensitive topics such as environment, immigration and the forced relocation of Native Americans, Rolland says she’s generally received positive responses.
“In a concert setting people come willing, they come with open hearts,” she says. “I’ve been able to talk pretty openly about these issues to audiences of all kinds.”
Emphasis on all. Rolland is no stranger to strangers. Having toured extensively with 2012’s winner of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival band competition, Run Boy Run, Rolland has performed across the country, gracing rural and urban audiences alike. Now, with the release of Seed & Silo, her first solo album, Rolland is taking stages again.
As for Matt and Rebekah Rolland, expect them to air Seed & Silo with a hearty helping of storytelling, harmony and blue-ribbon fiddling as both are Arizona State Fiddle Champions.
Aside from sharing her songs, Rolland hopes to pay tribute to the National Parks system that afforded her such an opportunity for immersive inspiration.
“My goal with this project is to promote the history of and appreciation for the parks,” Rolland says. “National Parks are so important for maintaining historically and ecologically significant places in the United States.”
Furthermore, through artist-in-residency programs such as the one on which Rolland capitalized, the National Parks use preservation to support fresh creativity. For Rolland, this window to the past is invaluable.
“It’s important to have literature and art that reminds us to look at events of the past and reflect on how that has brought us to where we are and how we continue moving forward,” she says.
Though not recommended, should you miss Matt and Rebekah Rolland this time around, the couple will be teaching at the Roots and Boots Music Camp in June, produced by Flagstaff local and Pickin’ in the Pines collaborator Julie Sullivan.
If you’re not into summer rainchecks, best head to Firecreek tonight.
Matt and Rebekah Rolland perform with Jack Dwyer at Firecreek Coffee Co., 22 E. Rte. 66, on Thursday, Jan. 10. Tickets are $12. Doors at 7 p.m. www.rebekahrolland.com