Parenting changes a person’s perspective on life and the world. So does losing one’s parents. Within the same year, 2018, Amy Speace gave birth to her son, Huckleberry, just after turning 50, and said goodbye to her father, doomed to know his grandson but forbidden from seeing him grow up. There aren’t many one-two existential punches as swift as that. The silverest lining to Speace’s experiences with man’s life cycle is her new album with The Orphan Brigade, There Used To Be Horses Here, 46 minutes of folk tracks expressing the joys of life, the responsibility of motherhood and the suffocating grip of death, all at once.
It’s still COVID time, even as more Americans every day are taking their first or second jabs and posting bandaid selfies before the side effects kick their asses. Good feelings are slowly—very, very slowly—returning to the nation’s numb limbs. There Used To Be Horses Here is a record easily described as “music to feel bad to,” which for many won’t read much like a selling point. But, surprise surprise, it is. Speace, rather than wading in the morass of bereavement, grafts her suffering to her bliss, creating a twangy, strumming back-and-forth between both axes of the mortal coil: When she’s singing about her son, it’s often implied that she’s singing about her Dad, and when she’s singing about her Dad, it’s often made explicit that she’s also singing about her son.
Parents shouldn’t have to bury children. This much goes “right” for Speace, if you can call a complicated “farewell” to your Dad “right.” But There Used To Be Horses Here addresses the anguish felt when the relationship between alternating generations is extinguished. “Remember that song now / My son sings along now / The one you once sang to me,” Speace recalls on the third verse of “Grief is a Lonely Land”; there remains a link connecting Huckleberry to his grandfather, but one the boy can’t yet understand at his age and which only Speace herself appreciates. What she concedes over the gentle hum of violins and echoes of piano notes is that this song, passed down from her father to her and now from her to her son, is her memory anchor: It’s the tune that lets her remember Dad. Huckleberry won’t remember him at all, except through the stories Speace tells.
This is a heartbreaking thought. Speace’s lyrics and delivery both present the thought as a blunt reality. There’s no poetry in her writing, just truth, and much as the truth hurts, it’s a welcome hurt packaged with lovely songcraft. Frankly, if the idea of truth hurting doesn’t appeal to you, then you’ll have very little reason to listen to There Used To Be Horses Here, but Speace’s work here applies to our moment: Americans have been in a sustained bout of collective grief since February ‘20, and the affecting power of her music is testament to its accidental necessity. We all need a way to grieve. There Used To Be Horses Here just happens to be Speace’s. Granted, most of us aren’t veteran folk singers, but Speace’s active processing on the album is not only a pleasure to hear, it’s also instructive.
There Used To Be Horses Here opens with “Down the Trail,” a dramatization of the old “take a trip down memory lane” idiom: She’s driving in a baby blue Pontiac with the top down, a passenger in the backseat next to her brother while Mama rides shotgun and Dad takes the wheel. The vivid imagery, the specificity of it all, functions as Speace’s invocation. “I’m heading on down the trail,” she says simply, an invitation as much as a statement of purpose. There Used To Be Horses Here is her focused effort at taking stock of her past and her present, which together inform the course of her future as she continues down her road as songwriter and mom. She’s lonely without her Dad; she’s also a land unto herself, which makes loneliness seem an impossible state of being. “Mother is a Country,” the album’s penultimate track, recognizes Speace as her son’s whole damn world, a lullaby of a sort sung in harmony with trilling strings.
Even in embracing this identity, though, she’s aware of her own feelings: “She knows she’ll grieve the separating life,” she sighs before the song’s final chorus. There’s no escaping sorrow. But There Used To Be Horses Here doesn’t offer escape. It offers reconciliation. It won’t do to dwell on the past. It’s better to confront it. Here, Speace shows her audience how, as long as they’re open to listening.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.