Atlanta-via-Athens, Ga. singer-songwriter Adam Klein has officially released his new LP Holidays in United States today via Cowboy Angel Music.
The deeply socio-political album was produced by Bronson Tew and features musical contributions from Matt Patton and Jay Gonzalez of Drive-by Truckers, Spencer Thomas of Futurebirds, and a slew of other ace studio musicians.
Oh I’ve known the power and her lonesome whistle’s glory / our story’s yet to unfold /
Delicate flower bending and broken and bowed / in need of tending, in need of sunlight /
of water from a cool mountain stream / of a new American dream
With these poetic, longing words, singer/songwriter Adam Klein offers a hymn to the promise of America and closes out his powerful new record, Holidays in United States, out April 7, 2023 on Klein’s Cowboy Angel Music.
The path to these lines is paved with themes which many artists have explored amidst the chaos of these most intense past few years — tragedy, disillusionment, an unparalleled global pandemic, societal divisions, and the like. Yet the strength of songwriting, lyrical detail, humanity, vulnerability, and lush production serve to confirm Klein’s reputation as a songwriter to be reckoned with. Combined with the guiding hand of Klein’s longtime producer/collaborator Bronson Tew and the backing of an all-star studio band, Holidays takes listeners on an expansive sonic journey across multiple styles.
His first overtly socio-political collection to be released, the songs’ commentary takes the state of American society to task in certain regards, holding only a few punches. Yet feelings of heartbreak and devastation are tempered by signs of hope and promise. Consisting initially of a double album of material, Klein culled it down to a tight, focused eight songs which clock in as a powerful full-length record filled with some of the veteran songwriter’s most astute and moving lyrics to date.
In the instant classic opener “Blood on My Hands”, the narrator wonders about personal and collective responsibility and complicity when it comes to racial injustice, offering a range of perspectives from the well-intentioned (“I didn’t think I was blind / I loved all mankind”), to deflection (“I was a thousand miles away / I didn’t care, I didn’t know / somebody else should’ve stopped the blow”) to the stone cold (“shake down somebody else to help / it’s just the way that the cards were dealt / shouldn’t come as no surprise”). The chorus, though, finds Klein recognizing our common humanity and leaning in to the fight: “I’m learning how to love for the very first time / Now I can see your destiny’s wrapped in mine / the fog is liftin' I can see the shore / finally found something worth fighting for”.
“Wait til They Come Knockin’” addresses the stacked deck of the American justice system (“Justice is just a word that lives in a smoky back room where you don’t wanna take the heat”) with a reference to Dylan’s “Desolation Row”: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging / at every county fair / fibers of whip and rope upon the floor where the beauty pageant girls twirl every perfect strand of hair”, Klein sings, reminding us that the shadows of our past remain closer than we may imagine.
In another nod to one of his musical heroes and the tradition of protest in folk song, listeners may recognize two references to Neil Young’s “Ohio” on Holidays. “Ohio: Revisited” memorializes the fateful day (“She wore flowers on her jeans/ felt concrete against her knees / the whole world heard her screams / then licked a soft ice cream / chocolate sprinkles on the cone”) ending a series of stanzas with Young’s refrain “four dead in Ohio”. And further connecting the song with the Civil Rights era, the chorus asks: “Are we back in Money, Mississippi? Did we ever go? Now we kill ’em with the boot and the knee / How did we get so low?”
The other instance may be found in the epic number “I-20”, a conversation between a father and daughter on the way to a protest for racial justice. There, Klein alludes to Young’s opening line (“Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming”) in the chorus.
The album concludes with a reflection on the myths and lore of America, in the yearning and hopeful tones of “Bright Rails Shine”, a mystique-filled travelogue upon the rails of the varied vastness of this great land.
The origins of the record took root nearly a decade ago, although Klein hit something of a creative wall initially. “I wrote a song early on that never felt right — either too overt or non-poetic — which dealt with gun violence in the wake of the shooting of Laquan McDonald by police in 2014,” he recalls. “And though it didn’t take, it set my radar to be attuned to such issues for this collection of songs.” Klein had drafts of “Blood on My Hands” and “Wait til They Come Knockin’” as far back as 2015. He tinkered with these ideas, never felt they were finished, and set them aside.
Fast forward to the historic late spring and summer of 2020. The 50th anniversary of the Kent State shootings. George Floyd. Social protests amidst a newly emerged global pandemic. All the while, Klein was settling into a new home with his wife and daughter.
“It was a strange time,” he notes. “On the one hand, COVID was ravaging the world and our country, we were engaging in an overdue racial reckoning and jolted into registering, at long last, how far we still have to go to achieve social and racial equity in the U.S., all the while living in a highly polarized time. On the other hand I was enjoying an idyllic time with my family in our new home, taking walks in the neighborhood and local parks, and far removed from the anguish and grief inflicted by the virus.”
Essentially in quarantine and concerned with the need to protect the health of his family, Klein watched the coverage of the protests and the watershed moment unfold on the news. Compelled to speak out and participate in the movement for racial justice, he thought again of the unfinished songs dealing with these ever-present issues of racial inequities, gun violence, and more, and determined to complete the task.
Finding a burst of inspiration between his full time work and dedication to family life, he began writing new material to sit alongside these earlier drafts. There were other unfinished songs, too, which didn’t address social issues, but which he realized sat alongside the newer ones as stories of hurting and unfulfilled American lives.
Klein’s literate songwriting and active years of touring pre-pandemic and fatherhood have earned accolades from Americana and folk press, multiple albums on the Euro Americana chart, an official performance at Folk Alliance, and shared stages with a long list of revered songwriters and bands including James McMurtry, Josh Ritter, Steep Canyon Rangers, Shovels & Rope, Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet featuring Bela Fleck, Okkervil River, and more.
To be sure, this long-anticipated album has seen its share of delays, but will finally have its opportunity to serve as a document of these historic times. “These issues may not dominate the news cycle at the moment,” he notes. “But they will continue to rear their head as long as we remain isolated in our silos and fail to recognize that America achieves its potential only when all people are welcome to thrive here and contribute to a healthy, diverse society.”
“There’s a great Leonard Cohen quote about his song ‘Democracy’”, Klein says, “in which he said, in part, 'I didn’t want to start a fight in the song. I wanted a revelation in the heart’. I love that idea. Cohen sought to transcend self and identity to speak for all humankind. This album may be more heavy-handed at times, but the sentiments are sincere. These are intense times, and while I’m as exasperated as anyone by the madness of the age, I’m trying to be a force for good, or at least somehow useful. I don’t know that this album will elicit a revelation of the heart, but through it, my heart is revealed, and I send it out with the hope that it may inspire not anger or despair, but a desire to work for a better, more just society.”