‘You got married, and I bought a gun’
Susie McCombs explores ‘the problem of pain’ on her debut solo album, ‘Songs from a Midwestern Estate’
In 1893, the infamous “Doolin-Dalton gang” and a posse of U.S. Marshals engaged in one of the bloodiest shootouts in American history in Ingalis, Oklahoma. The cover artwork on Susie McCombs’ new album, Songs from a Midwestern Estate, memorializes this terrifying event with a blue-tinted photo of the bullet-battered ghost town today.
This album is McCombs’ first solo effort. She has a nerdy but mischievous streak that’s in line with her making the site of a notorious gun battle her album cover. This album is also a folk history of sorts. There’s a strange Western sensibility. It explores a young woman’s life growing up in Claremore, fascinated by the arcane details of Oklahoma, the vastness of space, and McCombs’ personal struggle to recover from a traumatic brain injury while holding on to the faith that sustains her to this day. Songs from a Midwestern Estate will be released with a live performance at 8 p.m. Oct. 26 at The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Hall of Fame.
For the past decade, Susie McCombs has been the lead singer of the shoegazer rock band Brother Rabbit. Their music marries elements of post-rock, at times boisterous and epic, with McCombs’ distinctive voice. When she decided to start recording her first solo project earlier this year, however, the songwriter made a conscious effort to change directions musically.
“In between writing songs for Brother Rabbit, I started to write songs that weren’t really suitable for our genre. They were just simpler folk songs that I didn’t want to play with a full band, and I really wanted to keep for myself,” McCombs said. “Once I decided to record these songs, I wanted them to be raw and sparse and to take on more of the sounds of Oklahoma.”
These limitations had a clarifying effect on the new record. On Songs from a Midwestern Estate, the rock instrumentation of Brother Rabbit has been replaced with gentle slide guitar, prominent harp and McCombs’ hypnotic droning contralto. Engineer and producer Tony Chambers adds the only rhythm with pulsing kick drums and foot stomps which are often the only sounds other than McCombs’ guitar and lyrics.
McCombs’ lyrics are the most interesting piece of this record, suffused with love and sorrow, often in the same instant. The opening track “Departure Songs” begins:
Honey, you cut me deep
I thought you’d come back to the stage
perhaps just to wave
You fled the building
You ran away
You got married, and I bought a gun
You cut me short and I grew my hair out long
This is how we grow
Here McCombs isn’t bitter. She finds this juxtaposition of detail hilarious. The singer-songwriter is strangely grateful for the lessons of this painful relationship.
Much of this album is rooted in what C. S. Lewis called “the problem of pain.” The record is in many ways a parable of hope conquering pain: the pain of loss, the pain of death, and McCombs’ personal struggle to hang on to her faith in the face of a painful injury which changed her life forever.
“I had a traumatic brain injury when I was I kid, and I never recovered all the way from that. If you study the medical side of my recovery it’s incredible because I shouldn't be alive however we were hoping for a full recovery,” McCombs said. “Growing up in a church, of course, people would pray for me. Their intentions were pure and good, but I can’t tell you how faith-shattering it was for me and my parents as a child who just wanted to be normal, who just wanted to walk normal and have a normal body
“To have a group of people form circles and pray for you, and then when they’re done they expect you to just get up and walk out normal but nothing ever happened. Nothing ever happened. That was really hard. There was so much pressure on me. I felt like I had these expectations. Like I better walk right or these people aren’t going to believe in Jesus anymore.”
She was 11 at the time of her traumatic brain injury, and she found herself forced to confront these questions about the nature of human suffering even then. Why would a God who loved her allow the dreams of a young girl to live a normal life to be crushed?
All these years later, Susie McCombs still doesn’t have answers to these questions. “I can’t answer why some people die and why some people don’t get any better,” she said. “But a big part of these songs are about learning God through that.”
Ultimately, Songs from a Midwestern Estate expresses McCombs’ faith in the all-consuming power of love. “I feel like people make love out to be something so much smaller than it is. Love includes compassion and forgiveness. It’s a lot of things, and I don't think we have the right to define love in our own human terms. Relationships can suck, and the conflict between two people can suck. But love is a lot bigger than that.”
Songs from a Midwestern Estate Release Show
Opening set by Matt Magerkurth
Friday, October 26, 8 p.m., $5
Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame
5 South Boston Avenue