Nashville singer-songwriter Rachel Baiman has been steadily building a loyal following among folks predisposed to bluegrass and old-time music. Her debut album, Shame, established her as a songwriter unafraid of looking at reality through her music, rather than sugarcoating anything. And its follow-up, an EP titled Thanksgiving (due Nov. 2 on Free Dirt Records), sees her going even further in that truth-teller direction.
As American holidays go, Thanksgiving has deeper roots in this country than does even Christmas (the former was established as a national holiday seven years before the latter). But you wouldn’t get that impression if you were just following the music. Christmas beats out most other holidays in the realms of both commercial and traditional songwriting.
And while Baiman’s EP is unlikely to enter the traditional canon anytime soon, it does an exquisite job of employing folk traditions to ruminate on the beloved holiday from several different angles.
“Tent City” is an old-timey romp about living without a home and feeding people who are homeless. The song could live in various other contexts and be just as memorable and provocative; but in this collection about Thanksgiving, we’re forced to reckon with the reality of a holiday that calls upon us to celebrate abundance even while so many people have so little.
The EP’s title track ruminates on America’s relationship with its indigenous people, from the legend of the first Thanksgiving to the present-day Water Protectors and those disenfranchised from voting and other rights. Baiman walks that fine line of the topical songwriter on this track, delivering lyrics that are equal parts narrative and socio-political without falling into preachiness.
Her delivery of John Hartford’s “Madison Tennessee” with master guitarist Molly Tuttle is a delightful palate cleanser that tackles all the complexities of heading home for a visit with family. And finally there’s the emotional, ruminative “Times Like These”—a gorgeous duet with fellow singer-songwriter Josh Oliver. It closes the collection by exploring numerous things to be thankful for, and the effort one occasionally needs to exert in order to embrace gratitude.
“Put down your paper,” they sing. “And turn off the news. Won’t you come closer, kick off your shoes. Open the window, let in the breeze. Darlin’, I need you, living in times like these.”
Indeed, the whole set ends with that line about “times like these,” summing up Baiman’s objective with this small collection of songs. These times receive plenty of comment in music these days, and Thanksgiving—the EP as well as the holiday by the same name—calls upon us to find gratitude where we can. Like the characters in the song, it can seem hard to do sometimes, but opening a window is often a good place to start.