The Milk Carton Kids are two men with acoustic guitars and a bag full of stories from across these United States. They are oddball purists, insisting on crafting songs with nothing but live harmonies.
Members Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale share songwriting duties and make music that sounds as if Art Garfunkel were singing backup for Dave Rawlings, with feathery vocal performances and just a touch of twang. Recently, on the band's second Prairie Home Companion appearance, host Garrison Keillor praised the band's sound as "elegant." Words like "quiet" and "gentle" come to mind, too, although Ryan says the performance never feels gentle.
"I've had to get used to the fact that it's being perceived as exceedingly soft and gentle. Because to me there's something very risky and tense about it, at least in performing it," Ryan says. "The way the harmonies are, I guess it comes across as delicate, but to me it feels more precarious, like dangerous. And the same with the way that Kenneth plays the guitar, I've always likened it to somebody walking across the tightrope, which I suppose, if they do it well, looks like they're being delicate, but I've always had this sense that it's because there's some sort of danger or risk of falling off."
At least part of the band's sound can be credited to Ryan's parents, who stopped buying records when their son was born in 1982 and so raised him in a musical time capsule where Dylan, Morrison, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young reigned supreme. Later, while studying psychology in college, Ryan discovered The Band and John Prine for the first time before finding himself, like so many serious singer-songwriters, in a Gillian Welch phase.
The Milk Carton Kids do things the hard way, with no backing band and no safety net. And it's paying off, earning them a spot on the ANTI- record label roster alongside artists like Wilco and Tom Waits. It's also earned them a relentless touring schedule, and the road has served as a muse on more than one occasion. Although they hail from Los Angeles, their lyrics are peppered with references to just about any place but home. "Michigan's in the rearview now," Ryan sings on the opening track to the band's 2011 album Prologue. "I'll be in New York/ Without you like before/ I'm never lonely/ Off making trails/ Passed on the only/ Woman dressed in veil," he sings on a track titled "New York," off the same album.
Following in a folk tradition older than Johnny Cash's "I've Been Everywhere," geography works its way into the Milk Carton Kids' songs simply because Ryan and Pattengale have been there. That's the simple explanation. "Maybe the more meaningful explanation is that a lot of times it feels like invoking the name of a particular place can be a powerful literary shortcut to call to mind all the both common and disparate connotations that people have with a place," Ryan says. "I think when you talk about Michigan in the wintertime, that means the same thing to a lot of people, but then you also get the benefit of playing on people's differing expectations of what that is."
Constant traveling has also made Ryan wary of the rapid homogenization of American towns and cities. Each morning, he says, he can wake up at the local Hampton Inn or Holiday Inn and drive to Target for a cup of Starbucks coffee. It's not a new lament, but it's one that he lends an especially doleful tone on the track "Memphis." "This ain't a trip with my son/ There's no guitar shines in the sun," he sings, referring to Paul Simon's happier trip to Graceland in 1986. The chorus is crushingly elegiac: "And now the sun goes down over Dolly Parton Bridge/ The one-time home of soul takes our country's final breath."
Ryan says the song came to him after a disappointing trip to Beale Street, a place that once played a major role in the histories of both civil rights and the blues but that today peddles a lot of keychains and nostalgia. "There was a very powerful letdown, I guess, on our first trip to Memphis," Ryan says. "When you get there, it seems to all be based on things that have happened there in the past, and nothing resembling anything that spurred the legend of Memphis seems to be happening in Memphis now. And I don't mean to single out Memphis, but it seems that way in a lot of places that you go."
"Graceland," Ryan sings, "is a ghost town tonight." But he's not just wistful for some lost golden era of music. Raised though he was in a musical bubble, Ryan denies the oft-repeated claim that music died in some particular decade. Seeing Elvis' home really was an eye-opener, though. "You're meant to be taking a tour of the past, and it's all well and good, but I guess there was a bit of a longing there to create some of our own history, or to be mindful of our own cultural depths so that we have something to build a museum to 50 years from now."
Heavy thoughts, but they make for gorgeous songs.