“I’ve always thought of the BoDeans as a truly American band,” says Kurt Neumann, the founder, primary writer and frontman of the veteran Milwaukee-based group. “We were blue-collar kids straight out of the heartland-how could we be anything else? ‘Roots rock’ was a label I fought when I was younger, but I came to realize that if by ‘roots’ you meant blues, rock, country and soul all slammed together into one sound, then I’d say yes-that is the sound of American-made music.”
Neumann fully embraces that notion on American Made (2012), the BoDeans’ eleventh album. Its dozen songs are laced through with strands of indigenous roots elements-Heartland hoedown folk (“American,” with guest Jake Owen spinning out the guitar solo), Celtic-rooted mountain music (“Walk Through This World,” “Flyaway”), Zydeco (“Everything You Wanted”), Southern roadhouse soul (“Don’t Bring Me Down”), Chicago blues (“Shake the Fever”) and 100-proof roots rock (“All the World”). These tracks are played with heartfelt emotion as well as jaw-dropping skillfulness by the band-Neumann on vocals and guitars, original member Michael Ramos (Patty Griffin, John Mellencamp) on keyboards and accordion, longtime BoDeans bassist Ryan Bowman and new member Warren Hood, a fiddle/violin virtuoso from Austin.
As it turns out, the album title bears a thematic resonance as well as a stylistic one. With American Made, the BoDeans have created a soul-stirring song cycle that directly reflects the American experience at this critical moment in our history. The album-which also includes a powerful rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” - was inspired by Neumann’s blue-collar upbringing and his desire to express what a great country America remains, despite its troubles and the challenges facing it today.
“As we’ve moved into the new millennium, we’ve begun to question our identity as Americans-who we are, or who we want to be,” says Neumann. “With the onset of the Tea party and the Occupy movement, it feels like we’re pulling in two very different directions. The song ‘American’ talks about this land of ‘endless possibility,’ and ‘Where else in the world you ever gonna find this kind of ideology?’ We’re lucky to have the rights and opportunities that we have, but I believe those rights come with a responsibility to help each other along. It’s wrong to stockpile millions or billions of dollars while all your neighbors struggle to survive. It feels like we’re losing the common sense that has always guided us, and that worries me. We’re so out of touch with each other-and just trying to find an American-made product has become almost comical. I wanted to bring that all of that to the surface-hence the album title.”
If American Made is about resilience in the face of daunting obstacles, the same can be said of the unforeseen circumstances that led to the album’s creation. Sam Llanas, one of the original members, left the band last year in order to launch a solo career, the news coming just one day after the release of the band’s previous LP, Indigo Dreams. When Llanas quit, Neumann could have thrown in the towel, but he chose to stick with what he’d begun nearly three decades earlier as the band’s driving force and the architect of its sound. So he and his fellow band members cinched up their belts and carried on. Since then, Neumann has discovered that while unexpected change can be difficult, it can also be revitalizing.
The first order of business was to come up with a cohesive batch of material - Neumann didn’t realize going into the process that it would yield what amounted to the most intensely personal songs he’d ever written.
On “Jay Leno,” Neumann metaphorically invokes the name of the pop-culture figure in recounting a traumatizing childhood experience. “When I was eight years old, growing up in Milwaukee, my family and I came home on a frigid February evening to find our back alley lined with police cars,” he recalls. “Someone had found a young girl’s dead body in the garage next door to my house. Even at a young age, I’d seen a lot of violence in our lower-income neighborhood, but this really shook me up, and my family as well. Soon afterward, my parents moved me and my brother out to Waukesha, a small town just 20 miles west of Milwaukee, but it seemed like a world away from my old neighborhood. I’m not sure why I decided to write a song about it, but as I worked on it, I realized that in a sense this girl may have saved my life. People take drastic measures to get out of poverty, and I’m sure my life would have turned out very differently had we not moved.”
“Chemical” was inspired by growing up with an alcoholic father, and by the many other chemically dependent people in Neumann’s life. “With my dad, even as a kid I could see the writing on the wall,” he says. “I used to feel like there was something he was looking for at the bottom of that brandy bottle. At one point, I called AA trying to find some place I could take him to get help, but the guy on the other end of the line told me I was a fool for trying. He told me I couldn’t help him - that he needed to make that call himself. Sure enough, a few years later, he dropped dead; the booze had killed him.”
As for “I’m on Fire,” Neumann says, “Springsteen’s lyrics have always spoken to me. I know exactly what he’s talking about-I’ve grown up with the same feelings in my gut. This is one of a handful of his songs that I felt I could even approach. I’ve sung it for years. While we were in the studio, we blew it down for fun and it just turned out really nice.
“On another level,” he points out, “the record was inspired by the pop music I listened to on the radio as a kid, feeling the mesmerizing energy busting out of that tiny speaker. As always, I’ve tried to tap into that energy in my songwriting.”
When he’d completed the new material, Neumann called on John Alagia (Dave Matthews, John Mayer, Jason Mraz, Ben Folds) to produce and mix the record, with the exception of “Jay Leno,” which was mixed by Jim Scott (Wilco, Tom Petty), who’d worked with the band in the mid-’90s. Determined to make the best possible album no matter the cost, Neumann sold his truck, one of his most treasured possessions, in order to cover the cost of recording at L.A.’s state-of-the-art Village Recorder, where the band had worked in years past with T Bone Burnett. Alagia brought in Victor Indrizzo (Beck, Sheryl Crow) to play drums. They tracked the entire album in just three days.
Thanks to Neumann’s renewed passion and determination, the BoDeans are still going strong a quarter century after their Burnett-produced debut Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams led them to win a Rolling Stone readers’ poll as “Best New American Band,” and nearly 20 years after their “Closer to Free” became a massive hit and the theme song of the sitcom Party of Five. The BoDeans continue to tour the U.S. year-round, exposing the kids of their longtime steadfast fans to heartfelt, trend-free, American-made music.
But things could’ve turned out very differently. Neumann acknowledges that Llanas’ abrupt departure had triggered an intensive and extended bout of soul searching, causing him to question the basic assumptions he’d carried with him through the life of his band.
“In my frustration, I asked myself, What is BoDeans?” he says. “Is it me, or someone else, or the music. I thought about all the letters people have written me over the years explaining how our music had played an intimate role in some part of their lives-a wedding, a death, a celebration, growing up, growing old. And I came to the realization that the key to the BoDeans’ identity is the fans’ connection to our music. So the inspiration for this record is just that-to carry on with what I started many, many years ago, and to do it for as long as people continue to feel that connection. That’s why I’m so excited about this record. I’ve been humbled by the notion that the fans have given me the chance to go on.”