A working-class hymnal
Chris Lee Becker explores faith, family, and frontiers on his new album
A pastel patchwork quilt his grandmother made for his wedding 8 years ago is the album art for Chris Lee Becker’s new record. Local artist/designer Kalyn Fay Barnoski superimposed Becker’s unsmiling face on the center of the colorful quilt in grayscale. Many years ago, these sorts of quilts were a kind visual family history—an anthology of colors and images that added up to a family. Like the songs on his new record, the picture tells a story.
In and Around Bethlehem, U.S.A.—which will be released on Friday, August 10, with a live performance at The Woody Guthrie Center—is Becker’s third album on Horton Records. A piece of Americana and naturalist prose, the album sounds like a parable from a working-class American family riddled with nostalgia and struggle and loss.
In and Around Bethlehem, U.S.A is the kind of record that makes a songwriter’s mom worry, according to Becker’s website. It reads. “Don’t get me wrong: It’s fantastic and has some funny lines, but overall, it’s kind of a bummer.
Don’t worry, though—Becker is just fine. It’s the goddamn world that ain’t.”
Becker was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but he was raised in Bartlesville. He describes his family as pretty boring middle-American people. Their music and stories populate this album. His dad is obsessed with Dylan. His mom plays guitar and piano, and she even sang Mozart’s Requiem in the Bartlesville Choral Society once at Carnegie Hall. Her family in Missouri was full of fiddle players who played footstompin’ family sing-alongs.
The story of this complicated but commonplace American family and their roots is at the heart of these songs. “‘Bethlehem, U.S.A.’ is a song . . . about when I moved back to Oklahoma,” Becker said. “How things changed. When you go back to a small town and it’s kind of died. Nothing’s the same. Bethlehem’s just a metaphor for the town you’re from.”
These characters and small-town images are familiar but altered by Becker’s uniquely poetic sensibility. He describes an aunt who’s a rodeo clown, a pill-addicted family member desperate to find love on the internet, a father who races pug dogs through the Adirondacks, and a woman of faith so intense she “she clenched her fists so hard her hands bled like stigmata.”
The granular details of the stories and the lives of the people he sings about are grounded by religious metaphors and the profound moral compass that guides Becker’s songs. “It’s hard to say if I have a faith,” Becker said. “You grow up with it. So it’s always part of you, whether you believe it or not. When I was young we went to church. We were Catholic and we went to church every Sunday. My moral code comes from that I guess.
Catholicism in Oklahoma’s a little different since it’s so surrounded by Protestants,” Becker continued. “You kind of get a rebellious streak in you. It’s kind of weird to be told when you’re young that you’re going to hell because you’re Catholic. I thought I wasn’t going to hell because I’m Catholic. That’s the whole point!”
There’s a blade-sharp pragmatism in these sparse alt-country songs. Dylan Layton produced the album, featuring the gentle lap steel, dobro and guitar which have come to define some of the Horton Records sound. Here the instruments serve as a solid backdrop to Becker’s heady prose. His songwriting fits somewhere between Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads, Graham Parsons, and modern singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek’s vivid, plainspoken, imagistic folk songs.
Becker begins the album singing:
Old rows of film in a box twenty years old
undeveloped stories waiting to be re-told…
sundresses, beer, sentimental rock and roll.
Oh those nights we burned so bright
our eyeballs cursed the light.
There’s a sense of unadorned romanticism to this record. Becker believes in things. He just knows the limitations of such beliefs. One of the strongest tracks on the album, “Set You Free,” acknowledges this difficult dichotomy. “If he’s a fisher of men he throws them back in,” he sings. “He lets them drown or he lets them swim. My father had a rational mind most of the time, but my teeth are grit and my knuckles are white.”
Becker takes his middle American normalcy and imbues it with an almost religious devotion to the emotions these stories inspire. In and Around Bethlehem, U.S.A. is a tribute to faith and to the people who inhabit that faith. Not faith in God, necessarily, but a faith in humanity and family—and even faith in a world that may not exist anymore.
Chris Lee Becker Album Release
w/ Kalyn Fay, Jesse Aycock, and Dylan Layton
Friday, August 10, 7 p.m., $15
Woody Guthrie Center, woodyguthriecenter.org