CRITICAL MASS: Trout Fishing tackles covid and isolation in new album
- “When it stops hurting, everything will be fine.”
- – Trout fishing in America, “Safe House”
One afternoon in 1982, at the downtown Shreveport YMCA, Ezra Idlet must have felt magic in his hands.
One, two, three, four, five – maybe six – rainbow dishes launched from various locations between 23 and 28 feet from a 10-foot-tall basket set gently in a net suspended from a hoop intact metal. One of the game’s regulars, a small forward who had written Captain Shreve a dozen years before, asked in astonished exasperation:
” Who are you ? Larry Bird?
“No, I’m his sister,” snapped the long-haired, ear-ringed Idlet, 6ft 9in.
I witnessed this exchange. I may have even witnessed a few of those long distance jumpers.
Ezra was something like a rock star. I knew all about Trout Fishing in America, the folk rock duo he had played in with Keith Grimwood, which I assumed was named after Richard Brautigan’s 1967 surreal short story, which was circulating a lot in would-be bohemian circles at the time. .
Trout Fishing was already an institution, I thought, though checking my memory against the facts, they had apparently only released one full album, “You Bore Me to Death!” at the moment.
I knew the origin myth of trout fishing. When he was at Lamar High School – the “pretentious” public high school in Houston that counts Nobel Prize winner Robert Woodrow Wilson, novelist James Lee Burke, news anchor Linda Ellerbee and actors Jaclyn Smith and Paula Prentiss among its alumni STUDENTS – Idlet formed a country rock/folk band called Wheatfield with classmates Craig Calvert and Connie Mims.
In 1972, Idlet — who had been recruited by several schools in Texas — played basketball for the McLennan Community College Highlanders in Waco. They were a good team – unbeaten at home – but Idlet spent many nights playing solo shows at Poppa Rollo’s Pizza, and Wheatfield seemed like a viable career choice. He therefore chose music and never practiced any other profession. (Although if he had always shot as well as he did that afternoon at Shreveport Y…)
In 1974 Wheatfield added a bassist, and soon after a percussionist drummer. They played nights at the University of Houston and Rice University, and appeared on local television as well as on the inaugural season of “Austin City Limits”.
NAME, GROUP CHANGES
In 1976, they received a cease and desist letter from Oregon that claimed another group owned the name. At the time, they were working with choreographer James Clouser, scoring the rock ballet “Caliban,” based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” So they took on the name St. Elmo’s Fire, seen as a harbinger of the storm at the heart of the play.
That year, classically trained Grimwood, who attended the University of Houston and played string bass in the Houston Symphony Orchestra, joined the band after a union lockout. He thought he would eventually return to the symphony.
St. Elmo’s Fire toured Colorado and played across Texas. They scored another rock ballet for Clouser, “Rasputin.” They never got a major label deal, though they approached temptingly. They separated in 1979.
Idlet and Grimwood struck as a duo. Grimwood came up with the name Trout Fishing in America because he liked the book and the response when people asked him what the group was called. Some people got it; others just thought it was weird, but it worked.
And they worked, pretty much constantly, for about 40 years. They were something of an American analogue of They Might Be Giants, the absurd modern rock band whose core is the duo of John Flansburgh and John Linnell.
They Might Be Giants and Trout Fishing in America composed songs that explored the world from the perspective of a curious naive; both had lyrics apparently written from the perspective of children. But there was a quality of unironic warmth in the work of Trout Fishing in America that the angular, sometimes dissonant work of Flansburgh and Linnell lacked.
And so trout fishing in America might really appeal to kids.
Whether that’s what they wanted to do in the beginning may not be relevant; teachers who came to their shows recognized the quality, and soon Trout Fishing in America was pursuing parallel careers – they were both a children’s number and a duo that attracted adult audiences.
As Grimwood and Idlet grew up – as they got married and had children of their own (as well as mortgages and other paraphernalia of adulthood), their songwriting evolved. It was always about what was going on in their lives, usually undramatic daddy rock.
When they played for kids, they juggled and incorporated bits of physical humor. It helped that just by appearing on stage together they could be confused – Grimwood, at 5ft 5in, was shorter than some of the standing basses he played. And he was standing next to Larry Bird’s sister.
They have carved out a unique space for themselves in the culture. They have long since stopped chasing conventional commercial success to make their own way. They were among the first musicians to form their own label and market their music themselves.
In the early 90’s they moved from Houston to Northwest Arkansas – Grimwood to West Fork, Idlet to somewhere near Prairie Grove.
They continued to release records and perform concerts. They have earned Grammy Award nominations, National Indie Awards, multiple Parent’s Choice and NAPPA Gold (National Parenting Product) awards and an American Library Award. They had fans who considered them family. And they also had the family thing. It seemed like they could last forever. As it was, it was only about 40 years old.
Then, like everything else, trout fishing in America was brought to a halt by covid-19.
“Safe House,” their 25th album, is largely a response to the pandemic. Like all musicians, Grimwood and Idlet had to figure things out. They were in Pennsylvania at a show when they found out. They played, packed and drove to their respective homes. They haven’t seen each other for over a month, the longest in over 40 years.
It wouldn’t work. They decided to reunite their families in a pandemic capsule. They decided to be together, play music, live broadcast, write and record. To explore their instruments and some new songs too. They set up a streaming studio in Idlet’s recording studio.
Above all, they wrote.
“Safe House” is in a way a modest record, the product of two highly professional musicians of extraordinary intelligence who know how to underestimate certain elements and rely on their strengths. There is a gentle humor where others might get indignant and a great confidence in their voice. (Idlet and Grimwood tend to compromise on lead vocals, and their harmonies have a pleasing sweetness that fits nicely into their relatively simple arrangements.)
You can clearly hear every instrument; Grimwood’s bass and Idlet’s guitars (he also plays a touch of mandolin and light percussion) each fall into their own space. (There is only one outside musician on the album: Adam Collins of bluegrass band Arkansauce plays vibraphone on “Oh, These Afternoons.”)
But you can hear a certain emotion in the lyrics, a kind of lament in the title track and the album opener sung by Grimwood: It’s so hard to keep it all inside / It’ll be alright. When it stops hurting, everything will be fine.
The song could be interpreted literally, as about a physical space, shelter from a storm. But a safe haven can also be a prison, and the locked-in syndrome is something many of us have at least tasted over the past couple of years. Then Idlet responds with “Knock Me Down,” one of those inevitable songs that immediately feels like it’s been around forever. Of course, he will get up right away.
Idlet’s guitar work shines on “Don’t Be Callin'”. There’s an excellent reimagined cover of Susan Werner’s “Barb Wire Boys”; a very funny but probably journalistically accurate road report, “We’ll Always Have Ardmore”; and a bluegrass workout in “Where’s That Dog Gone Now?”
These are just the immediate highlights; “We Have Not Arrived” sounds like an anthem that could have been taken from a Broadway show, perhaps a collaboration between Lin Manuel-Miranda and Paul Simon in his underrated “Capeman” era. And “Looking at a Rainbow,” with its chorus that reminds us that if we see colors in the sky, the storm must be over, is a closer fitting album of hope.
BEST SERVED LIVE
Trout Fishing in America was never considered a record-breaking machine; they are living musicians whose highest and best use is as stage performers receiving and reflecting the energy of an audience. The recorded versions of their songs are just that: versions. For the definitive experience? You must be there.
In the bedroom, as the man says.
But we’ve been restricted from being in many rooms with other people for the past few months, and now that we’re only just beginning to venture out, there’s still floating trepidation and anxiety. Trout fishing in America is back on the road; you should check your local listings and their website – troutmusic.com – for schedules and merchandise and such. (They have lots of CDs, downloads and videos.)
One of the worst things that happened to our culture in the second half of the last century was that the word “nice” somehow acquired a pejorative connotation, as if “nice” was not a good thing. to be, or somehow the least desirable. good thing.
It’s a shame, because the perfect way to describe this duo is as a couple of nice, talented guys who pursue the good life by applying their special skills to creating art. It’s a good way to live and a good role model. There is a lot of joy in this music. And peace. And decency.
These are the kind of teachers children deserve and the kind of artists we should all pay attention to.
Perhaps it is fair to assess their entire career.
Hey guys, great shot.
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