The parallel pursuits of farmer and songwriter can be surprisingly complimentary: Long stretches of downtime provide ample hours to put pen to paper, while the solitary nature of a farmer’s chores allows for endless rumination. It’s something Lyal Strickland learned the hard way, after unexpectedly (and single-handedly) taking over his family’s struggling cattle farm. He also discovered that there’s no shortage of inspiration in the delicate balance of legacy, pride, and struggle that defines his hometown of Buffalo, Missouri (population 3,000 or so at last count).
Born of his surroundings and delivered in dispatches of visceral, plainspoken poetry, Balanced on Barbed Wire is either Strickland’s first or sixth album. “I made a few before this one,” he explains, “but when I hear this record, I feel like it’s my first. It’s the first time I’ve listened back to my own stuff and heard myself in the singing and in the songs.”
Having performed solo since high school days, Balanced on Barbed Wire is built around the core of his acoustic guitar and soulful, weather-beaten vocals. Strickland and co-producer Jeff Smith proceed carefully from there, adding burnished drums, heartbeat bass, and shimmering touches of fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and electric guitar. “The benefit of being solo,” Strickland explains, “is that I get to put together my own all-star band when it comes time to record.” The album’s supporting musicians include Ozark Mountain Daredevils founders Steve Cash and John Dillon, along with current guitarist David Painter; Mark Cassidy of Missouri bluegrass sensations The Hillbenders; and the late Lou Whitney, a renowned producer in his own right and member of influential roots outfits The Morells and The Skeletons.
Lyal calls his music “first-person folk.” The Kansas City Star simply called it “astounding…the narrators of his gorgeous folk-rock songs worry about their crops, wonder what passes through the mind of cattle and fret about the impact of encroaching urban sprawl.” Throughout Balanced on Barbed Wire, every line is invested with an unflinching honesty. “When I moved back to the farm and started working,” he recalls, “I remembered what it was like to be thirteen years old: to be really angry or really depressed and physically need to write a song.” That renewed urgency was focused by a craftsmanship honed over years of careful, deliberate composition.
The songs on Balanced on Barbed Wire cycle by, echoing the seasons that inspired them. Written over the course of 2012 and presented in roughly the order of their composition, they reflect the endless, unpredictable rigors that come with pulling a living from the land. “2012 was a particularly bad year on the farm,” Strickland recalls. “In the spring we had massive downpours. The fields were swamps. Then, summer came around and we had a horrendous drought that was just unbelievably difficult. You can work your way from spring to late summer on this album – from ‘Every Time It Starts To Rain’ in March to ‘Gettin’ By’ in the dog days of August – straight-up drought.”
In Strickland’s world, desperation is met with determination – a die-hard mentality embodied in the hard-scrabble, hard-working people eking out a living around him and experienced first-hand on the farm daily. “These songs are all experiences I’ve gone through personally, or were inspired by something that happened to a buddy of mine,” he explains. “Sometimes people in town recognize themselves. And everyone around here knows that songs like ’Not for Me’ and ‘Gettin’ By’ are about this town.” And yet Strickland handily avoids the pitfalls of documentary songwriting that leave others mired in an artless, amelodic haze. His melodies soar and twist, winding in unexpected yet entirely organic directions. Lyrically, he turns typical colloquialisms around in a way that is genuinely illuminating instead of merely clever. Counting the fallen all around him in “Some People Change,” he observes “Lost one to cancer / some others to cars / the rest of my friends / are swimming in bars.”
Growing up in Buffalo, Strickland was always pulled in opposing directions by the polar forces of tradition and defiance. “I always wanted to make it past the city limit sign,” he reflects. “But when I decided to go to college in Springfield – a good-sized town compared to what I was used to – I couldn’t see the stars at night.
“From those moments, it’s been a weird progression – a slow realization that this is where I needed to be,” he continues. “There was no one else to take on the farm, and it seemed like such a shame to let it go. Musically, I was also very much in flux.” A dedicated, disciplined songwriter since childhood, he described his collegiate musical efforts as “pretty poppy stuff sonically – still shiny and pretty.”
It took an early evening conversation on his front porch to awaken him to what was always all around. “People always tell you to write what you know. I’d heard it over and over again in songwriting circles, panels, workshops, and conferences, and I’d just sorta nod. But when I got back on the farm, I remember, pretty early on, an old buddy of mine came by. He’d been digging wells all day and was caked in dirt. We cracked a couple of PBRs and started talking about music. He said to me, ‘Man, you need to tell this story. Write about Buffalo.’
“Having someone I’ve known my whole life remind me of where I came from and what I was really about was a light bulb moment for me,” Strickland explains, still awestruck by the realization. “My whole fiber is this town. This land runs through me.”
Consequently, telling details of small-town life are woven into the fabric of Balanced on Barbed Wire. “In ‘Not for Me,’” Strickland recalls, “there’s a line about an old church sign being replaced. That was actually a huge controversy around here. We got a new YMCA, and it was next to the Baptist Church. They were tearing down this old neon church sign and screwing a new YMCA sign to it, and people went crazy. That church had been there forever. Little changes like that really resonate in a small town.”
When it comes to change, Lyal Strickland is no stranger: Over the past six years, he’s watched his songwriting realign itself into something at once more personal and more universally resonant. He eliminated store-bought feed entirely and dedicated himself to raising purely grass-fed beef cattle. And he watched two passions blossom simultaneously – one enriching and informing the other. “It’s strange,” he says, reflecting on the years he’s spent writing songs. “I feel like I’ve been around forever – but that’s what happens on the farm: You get in your own little world and it becomes more and more difficult to be aware that things are happening beyond the property line. But I finally feel like I have a story to tell. I feel more connected when I get out and work in the fields. It gets me into the right headspace to come back into the house and write songs.”
Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 the day of the performance
Show starts at 8:00