Don’t miss S.G. Goodman tonight at Johnny Brenda’s. Doors open at 8 p.m. The show starts at 9 p.m. Tickets are $15 bucks a pop.
As a young girl, right around this time of year, when our clocks fall back, the wind shifts and each morning grows brighter with the coming cold, Shaina Gail Goodman would reap her family’s fields. Once the wheat was threshed, the corn ears husked and soybeans shelled, it was her job to sell the harvest. Whatever she earned went right back into supporting her small-town way of life in Hickman, Kentucky, a hilly hamlet that overlooks the eastern bank of the Mississippi River. Even the spare change was funneled into the church offering plate.
It’s now been two decades and two albums since S.G. Goodman left Hickman in her rearview. But she’s still harvesting those southern roots through her potent and pertinent blend of newfangled folk and classic country mountain songs. When picking out the cover for Old Time Feeling, her first proper solo album, Goodman chose a murky, yellowish green Polaroid that was taken among the weeds of Bayou de Chien. The picture is of her father, who’s dressed in a mud-splattered collared shirt, face partially obscured by the bent brim of a sunbaked trucker’s cap. Pinched between his meaty fingers is the smooth, slimy head of a footlong water moccasin.
“Being a farmer’s kid, I spent most of my time outdoors, and I’d capture things and bring them in the house,” Goodman told Paducah Life Magazine. “My dad wanted to make sure his kids could identify a poisonous snake. Because if anyone was going to try and pick one up, it would have been me”.
You could hear Goodman teasing at that curious streak on Old Time Feeling. Her first album for Verve Forecast spun country fables like “Harvest Moon” and Sweetheart of the Rodeo into realist fictions for back porch progressives. Goodman is a straight shooter. She once bagged a bobcat with her brother’s 20-gauge rifle. But what she has to say about her heritage takes aim at both sides of the aisle. She took potshots at right-wing media and the coal industry while defending her accent on “The Way I Talk”, a sultry, slow burn of a highway rocker that’s sped off the rails by a pistoling guitar solo.
The way Goodman says what’s on her mind also cuts in different directions. Her guitar shakes with the same cosmic jangle as country cosmonaut Gram Parsons. Her voice bucks and whinnies like Karen Dalton while her pen brandishes the wounded wit of Blood on the Tracks. Her competing viewpoints have charmed everyone from Marc Maron to the blue-blooded imaginations at The New York Times. A recent NYT profile lumped Goodman together with Kelsey Waldon, Joan Shelley and Tyler Childers as the newly forward-thinking mouthpiece for The Blue Grass State.
Goodman is proud to represent all the beauty and complexity of the rural South. In that same NYT profile, Drew Vandenburg explained that what got him excited about producing her new album was the way she breaks the country mold. That’s high praise coming from a guy who’s been a guiding light for southern luminaries like Faye Webster, Deerhunter and gray-bearded torchbearers Drive-By Truckers. But Teeth Marks lives up to its name by sinking even deeper into those old time feelings.
“All My Love is Coming Back to Me” rollicks and rolls along NYC garage rock riffs that’ve been dunked in a deep fryer while the accompanying bassline choogles like Parquet Courts strolling through downtown Atlanta. “Heart Swell” is more of a busted and bluesy bar ballad, the kind you dream is crackling over the radio when you’re staring into a campfire on a cold summer night. Goodman slips into a husky lovesick trance, haunted by memories of swerving headlights and crop fires. Each pass through the chorus climbs higher and higher before fading like a smoke signal.
Teeth Marks doesn’t spare the critiques either. Heck, there’s a whole song that’s built around cheekily twisting a common mealtime prayer into a biting commentary on worker’s rights. But Goodman is still fiercely protective of her people. The album’s divided centerpiece rattles a righteous fist at Big Pharma before keeling over into a mournful Appalachian acapella for the hundreds of thousands who’ve died during the opioid crisis. “Just like a momma killdee, I covered you up,” she sings, craning, moaning, likening herself to the birds that used to raise hell anytime her father plowed near their nests.
Still, Goodman shrugs off this notion that she’s some sloganeering spokeswoman. The Dylan comparisons are well deserved, but she’s more homebody than rolling stone.
“I’m just living my life and writing songs when they appear,” she told FLOOD.
Some of the best songs on Teeth Marks sound like they were plucked out of thin air. Just listen to the title track, as the quiet end of a long loving relationship is patiently unfurled by a lonesome guitar loop and what sounds like a summer breeze twirling through an abandoned factory.
Goodman’s new album might feel like it’s nipping at the heels of her debut. But that’s only because the pandemic stopped her from heading out on what would’ve been her first-ever cross-country tour (she tried live streams but the Wi-Fi likes to crap out in her neck of the woods). Once vaccines shipped out, she and her trusty band hightailed the 8 hours down to Athens and got right to recording at Chase Park Transduction Studios. A good many of these songs have been jingling around in her back pocket long before her name ever appeared on record store shelves. “When You Say It” first started buzzing around her scruffy head of hair back when she was still roughing it as a landscaper. All she needed was 10 years, some stale bread and a strong shot of Kentucky bourbon for the slow sashay of that drum beat to hit her one night while dining in at the studio.
Goodman humbly insists that she’s not sitting on a treasure trove of rare demos and silver-tongued notebooks. For her songs to come together, she needs space and time to collect local color. Take the sly, somber chop of “Dead Soldiers”, which threads the smell of gasoline poured over flowers into an odd turn of phrase that she overheard while cleaning up after a house show in Statesville, North Carolina.
After all, Goodman still fancies herself a collector. “I’m a secret Alan Lomax of my loved ones” she confessed to Stereogum. Deep into “Patron Saint of the Dollar Store”, she listens back to an old voicemail left behind by her friend Tim, who she lost to suicide. There’s a glum, almost wry resignation to the dip in her voice as she presses repeat on her answering machine. “No trace of your love is ev’r lost on me”.
Goodman’s star is still on the rise. But at the ripe ol’ age of 33, she’s made an album that leaves a memorable impression. Teeth Marks already feels like a career culmination. It’s a heady yet melodically catchy album, where the past pools into a reflection of how the places we’re from and the people we’ve loved shape not just who we are but who we’ll become. Goodman’s rifles may be stowed in her family’s barn, but she still lives just an hour’s drive from her hometown, back in the same tiny city where she attended college.
At Murray State, Goodman fell along the fringes with the campus post-punks. Apparently, their crate digging sensibilities are still rubbing off on her. “Work Until I Die” crosses the dotted line between Pavement’s slack-jawed irony and the gritty freaked-out glitz stomp of The Velvet Underground. But even back then, Goodman showed plenty of hustle. The owner of Terrapin Station remembers how she used to slip customers CDs of her two-piece band The Savage Radley, whose southern fried spin on slovenly ‘90s indie rock won her local NPR station’s battle of the bands.
That early taste at success didn’t distract Goodman from paying attention in class either. Much like her mentor Dale Ray Phillips, she’s a true writer’s writer. As someone who’s spent many fretful evenings around the workshop table, I know plenty of established writers who would chuck their cushy tenure-track positions into the scrap heap for an opening line that’s half as clever and captivating as the one Goodman saves for tender missive “The Heart of It”.
Goodman already has a sense for when and where an album should end, too. Teeth Marks circles all the way back around to “Space and Time”, the celestial slow dance that not only kicked off Old Time Feeling but strapped a rocket to her career. The song has eclipsed 1 million Spotify streams, thanks to a neighborly hand from Childers.
But that burst in media attention blew up in Goodman’s face when Billboard dubbed her a “gay farmer’s daughter”. Though she’s never shied away from her sexuality, there are still folks back home who didn’t take that bit of breaking news too kindly.
“You do the work and process it,” Goodman said, regarding that falling-out. “It’s a way we leave teeth marks on ourselves.”
I doubt Goodman will ever embrace having a platform. She seems too genuine and focused on writing great songs to fall for that kind of craven self-promotion. Either way, she accepts the responsibility that comes with her expanding range of influence. When she was growing up, Hickman didn’t have much of a queer community to speak of. It still doesn’t. That silence taught her firsthand how erasure can scar somebody. She knows how vital it is for people like her to be seen and heard. But she’s also learned when to let that shit go.
“Keeper of the Time” isn’t a retread. I wouldn’t even call it a sequel. Instead, think of it as a way forward. “If it’s not something you should carry, then you better let it loose”, Goodman begins, surrounded by nothing but those loose familiar chords. As the rhythm section stretches into an extended interlude, suddenly — without you really even noticing — like a wave rippling through a watershed, the tempo quickens. Cymbals crash. Guitars seethe and unspool. Goodman sounds especially unhinged. There’s a lifetime of anger and weariness that’s being ripped away when she repeats the song’s title, like a bullet-riddled mantra. But she never sounds like she’s falling apart. Instead, she sounds steady, unflinching, fortified by the strength in her old bones.
You can catch S.G. Goodman tonight at Johnny Brenda’s. Doors open at 8 p.m. The show starts at 9 p.m. Tickets are $15 bucks a pop.
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