All songs know the future. Words sung 10, 20, and 200 years ago still speak to us now with uncanny precision. Music foretells every mistake we will make and loss we will suffer, but it cloaks its warnings in beauty, so we do not heed. Instead, listeners use shuffle as an oracle, and artists often say things they don’t understand, finding out what they meant only later.
Grief, too, can have a premonitory shimmer, like an aura before a migraine, when currents we can feel but not name are moving us toward places we can sense but not see. This aura softly crackles around Every Acre, H.C. McEntire’s third album for Merge Records. McEntire knew the chorus of “Rows of Clover” was the album’s emotional center: “It ain’t the easy kind of healing when you’re down on your knees, clawing at the garden.” But other lyrics took time to unveil themselves in both heartbreaking and healing ways.
One stanza—the term is used advisedly to describe McEntire’s symmetrical, epigrammatic verses—in that same downy piano ballad begins, “Bow beside the granite mound: at your heels, the steadfast hound.”
At first, it was the usual discreetly autobiographical flash of her life by the Eno River on the Orange County line. She didn’t know that her 14-year-old dog, Lou, would pass away after the record was finished, pouring supernal light into the descriptive lines, which conclude: “Crawl to cracks where the light gets through—warm and golden, absolute.”
“We would go to this altar I made in the woods and sit and meditate—well, I’d meditate; I don’t know what she’d do,” McEntire says one recent evening, laughing through a sadness that still appears fresh and sharp. “This album has revealed itself postproduction in a way that I’ve never experienced. ‘Foreshadowing’ is a good way to put it—I knew that my life was about to change.”
As she was making Every Acre, she was facing the possibility of having to leave the 100-year-old farmhouse where her songs’ distinctive dailiness has elapsed for a decade. Now she has left, living only half a mile but a whole world away. Furthermore, while making the album, one love ended and another began; after the album, it ended too. Every Acre wound up as the conjunction at the center of all these befores and afters, these causes and effects.
“I wanted to be really open about my depression and anxiety, but I didn’t know that after mixing the record I would interpret the songs in such a healing way,” McEntire says. “It felt otherworldly at the time; there was a sort of ease to it.”
Indeed, the turbulent themes of Every Acre roil behind a surprisingly light, relaxed version of her stark yet luscious country music. This energy, it turns out, is the sparkle of collaboration.
As you might expect of a meticulous writer who came to songwriting by way of poetry, which still resides at the core of her identity—and, sure, with the irresistible lure of having a great country voice—McEntire usually enters the studio fully prepared, but this time she had only six songs ready.
She developed a palette with coproducer Missy Thangs (cool, silvery jets of electric guitar; warm, pliant organs) and left plenty of room for her longtime band, including bassist Casey Toll and drummer Daniel Faust. Meanwhile, guitarist and coproducer Luke Norton was sending her riffs and sections to write over. This, along with her intuitions of turmoil, freed her from habitual chord progressions and vocal phrasings.
“I wanted to see what would happen if we relied on the instincts and trust we’ve built over the years and to kind of keep myself on my toes,” McEntire explains. “At least a third of the record we composed together, and I mumbled out scratch vocals and wrote lyrics later.”
There are also two guest stars. First, S.G. Goodman sings backup on the hypnotic “Shadows.”
“She’s from Kentucky; she is queer and writes about the complexities of the South. Everyone kept telling me I should check her out, and I was like, ah, OK,” McEntire says, conveying the reluctance we all feel when told that someone is just like us. But she did love the music, and they started building a connection when they played a show together at Motorco with Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray, whose championship first boosted McEntire to national acclaim.
“Amy’s a good friend at this point,” McEntire says. “We’ve been collaborating for over 10 years now. I feel like she’s a mentor but also a peer, which is a special thing. And I knew she was the right voice for ‘Turpentine’ because of all her work in Native rights.”
All songs know the future, but they also remember the past, built as they are on stratified mounds of convention and invention, technology and culture, satiety and struggle, inspiration and theft. Befores and afters, causes and effects.
To me, McEntire’s great theme is about how life’s changes register when you hold still in one place and pay attention for a long time. If Every Acre is “a long goodbye” to the land she has observed so closely and loved so well, it is also a reckoning with what she has taken from and owes it. Her music has been so intimately hewn from this ground that it seems right for the album to come with a land acknowledgment—to the Eno, Lumbee, Occaneechi, and other peoples whose dominion on the river casts her 10 years in a small light.
The issues of ownership and privilege came to consume her research while writing the album, which, in all, seems to be about giving up what you realize never belonged to you.
The theme is sounded clearly in “Turpentine,” in which McEntire minds the boundaries of the terrain and the bones underneath it before reaching the cleansing epiphany, “Hallelujah, turpentine! We can tend the land for a little while.”
And in “Shadows,” when a quatrain of questions about how to “make room” resolves:
Leave this place just like you found it:
Posts of cedar, coils of wire,
Tangled up inside the briar;
Like shadows on fire.
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