“Even when I abused drugs and alcohol as a young man, it was fueled by those Kerouac and Gary Snyder adventures,” explains Charlie Peacock, the artist/producer/songwriter, speaking of what drives him. “It was always about the journey and the search, the dreaming and thinking and doing, and that hasn’t changed.”
Peacock might be best known as the man at the helm of The Civil Wars-driven seismic music industry shift via their demi-lo-fi, high-roots Barton Hollow, but the 56-year- old musico has always sought deeper creative wells. He’s labored in the vineyards of glossy pop, progressive jazz, alternative rock-pop via platinum stealth-Christians Switchfoot and yes, as writer of Amy Grant’s wildly exuberant “Every Heartbeat,” but those are only aspects of who he is.
Closer to his essence is the resonantly organic No Man’s Land, his first solo project in 12 years. Equal parts an exploration of his family’s Oklahoma/Louisiana origins and his own soul-searching, it is a mélange: reels whirl, National guitars quiver like highway heatwaves and the metaphysics of life rise weightless from its dusty, earthy loam.
Whether the jaunty caution of “Death Trap,” the ethereal pledge to love amid the eternal quest “Till My Body Comes Undone” or the slinky consumerist indictment “Beauty Just Left The Room,” Land’s as much about what Peacock believes as the music emanating from his sub-cellular self.
“I am a student of epistemology,” he offers. “How we know what we know…It’s funny how many young artists can’t tell you who their influences are. There’s such a lack of skill and history and gumption. They just don’t know. Don’t know where any of it came from, and it’s sad. There’re simple doors of entry: Know the stories. What are the stories of your people?”
For Peacock, raised in Sacramento with legendary concert promoter Bill Graham’s musical eclecticism, it’s vast. Entry was via the blues—even through The Rolling Stones, as well as Latin music and Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, Jackson Browne “for the girls we were pining for” and the Mahavishnu Orchestra “if you were really committed.”
Even what you rejected was part: “I grew up where Rose Maddox was playing down the road—and we weren’t gonna be hillbillies; we were gonna transcend that. My grandma picked peaches, but we were gonna be more sophisticated than that.”
Just as the formative music shaped Peacock’s curiosity, the things about his family’s past had a hand in No Man’s Land’s overarching reality. A song cycle that considers God, love, life and one’s roots, its essence is more personal than even his influences.
A Louisiana Redbone—a murky miscegenation that’s neither black, native, Latin or white —Peacock’s people lived on the fringe, family-oriented and musical. They also wanted a different kind of life.
“My father’s grandfather was murdered by a nephew,” he explains. “There was enough darkness over the land… definitely some rascals… They heard about big trees being logged out West. They were tired of living where they were neither black nor white, just this potpourri; in California, they lived as white people. My mother’s side was a pruner and a picker with the peaches. So that’s how they got out there.”
And that’s how—along with a desire to know his past—No Man’s Land became a cocktail of Dust Bowl feels, Cajun beats and shuffles, raw banjos and fiddles, steel guitars that pool and spacious arrangements. This is music of red dirt and high humidity, different worlds that share the same sort of soul.
The twang of a National guitar burns off to gentle finger-picked acoustic guitar on “Mystic,” the second song. Peacock’s hushed voice offers, “I’m goin’ down to Mystic, Louisiana, looking for the meaning in the dirt/This is my story, my story is my glory, my shame, my comfort, my world/It’s all that I’ve got, all that I’ve never had.”
It seems a metaphoric allusion, but it’s literal. For the man who now resides in a former church re-christened Art House filled with outsider art and plain antiques, this is a pilgrimage to his soul.
As the track unfurls, it finds a more muscular Cajun groove, accordions wheeze and there’s an almost polka beat beneath. The seeking becomes a celebration.
“I can always locate the sadness [in my Dad’s early death],” Peacock says. “In some ways, this pilgrimage is for him. Though my parents were more sophisticated… It would’ve been easy to get on a plane to Lake Charles and drive that 45 miles, [but] it’s not something they’d have done.”
The resulting song cycle ranges from the romping “Ghost of the Kitty Cat”—which Peacock confesses “comes from my great-great-grandfather and his speech. How many times he’d say ‘Damn, boy…’”—to the slow-build horn-washed love song “Satellites” and the spaghetti-Western low pressure that tautens up “Voice of the Lord,” which considers the mixed-race reality and reckons, “I belong to the Maker… I’m the color of love/ Leaving this no man’s land.”
“We’ve come to a time where all you can do is make the music you love,” says the man who’s eschewed working with major labels for many years. “The dangling carrots and temptations have been taken out of the mix. It’s about performances, not cleverness or studio wizardry. People can hear through that, and want more.”
Peacock draws a line from David, who wrote the Psalms, through Duke Ellington, Coltrane, Dylan and Johnny Cash—citing the correlation between creativity and spirituality. He brings in the true speaking voice delivery of Joni Mitchell, Dylan, Paul Simon, possibly Marvin Winans and definitely Al Green for reality.
“Honestly, the secret of The Civil Wars?” he asks rhetorically. “Two very talented people with great songs and the seduction of dynamics. Kids get it’s not polished and processed, but people in a room—something they’ve never heard. Human beings in a room, the sound of air surrounding you, the glory and shame co-mingling… That’s radical now.”
Peacock’s radicalism strips away the artifice, standing if not naked, then real. Owning where he comes from, standing tall in the creativity allows him to co-conspire on an Irish hymns project, Holly Williams’ post-country reclamation, Jackson Browne, The Civil Wars and his own music.
“I had to,” he allows. “To put off making my own music felt like a failure to live the life I was given. That sounds more noble than it ought. Sometimes in my most frustrated moments as a record producer, somewhat ashamedly, I think, ‘I’m the best artist I know! Why am I not concentrating on my music?’ Maybe the truth of why I had to make this record lives in the middle.”
Somewhere in the middle is hardly Peacock’s stock in trade. It is the unvarnished real, the truth that pushes him that makes Land so intoxicating. Through the sweetness of reminiscence and the ponder of how to live, the spare tracks and the evocative melodies, there emerges a man always trying to be better, to love more, to see truer. For Peacock, that’s the reason for being—and making music of his own.