Singer/songwriter Blake Christiana and his four-piece make a virtue of constant motion
Place looms large in American music. Being from California or New York can set expectations about how a band or artist might sound. But the South in general, and areas like Texas or New Orleans or the Mississippi Delta have their own outsize meaning and musical sway. Yarn is an Americana/roots/country act originally from New York City, but half of the band has relocated to North Carolina as of a few years back. And the quartet spends so much time on the road that the whole idea of home gets kind of wobbly. That rambling and rootless uncertainty becomes part of the story. This year marks the group’s tenth as a band, so they’re getting the quality of seasoned road warriors. On the band’s most recent record, This Is The Year, from 2016, singer/songwriter/frontman Blake Christiana writes about always staying in motion and about a longing to connect with a style and feeling associated with specific parts of the American South.
I spoke to Christiana last week as the band was driving somewhere in the Great Lakes Region, having recently made the long haul from Montana to Chicago. Yarn play the Blind Tiger in Greensboro on Friday, May 5.
The Americana/alt-country boom has been underway for around 20 years or so, depending on how you calculate its spark. But the road to country music is a pretty natural one for any classic rock fan. Christiana grew up in upstate New York, and he had an ear for Neil Young and the Grateful Dead, where pedal steel, tight vocal harmonies and mandolin are all right at home.
“When I started working on the first Yarn record it was just kind of an experiment, doing an acoustic record,” says Christiana. “I didn’t purposely write songs to sound country. I was veering toward that and wanted it to be like American Beauty.”
Fast forward 10 years and Christiana is right at home in the zone, and right at home in North Carolina, having been living in Raleigh for a few years. The Tar Heel connection might be best articulated on “Carolina Heart,” the first song on the recent record. “Oh, Carolina, won’t you rescue my heart,” sings Christiana. “I’m begging for a new start.”
Rebirth and fresh chances are a theme on the new record. “This is the year we’re all gonna come out winners, we’re gonna raise a glass to a new beginning,” Christiana sings on the title track.
There’s optimism there, but there’s also the suggestion that one doesn’t ask for a do-over unless something went a bit wrong on the last go-round. And if the future is something with lots of possibility, sometimes the recent past has some sorry screw-ups that just need to be put behind us with the a help of a festive evening and a general willingness to have a good time.
“That theme bleeds in and out of a lot of what I write,” says Christiana. “Life is a series of hurdles, and sometimes you’ve got to knock one down and learn from it.”
A little high-octane R&R in the moment is often the only thing that will allow you to focus in the future. “When you just can’t win,” Christiana sings on “Easy Road,” “… Take the easy road, let the world go round/Fire it up and burn it down. … Tomorrow’s another day, but tonight, I’m checking out.”
A lot of band names are just a name, but one gets the sense that Yarn is a name that reflects something about the group’s sensibilities. It’s homespun, it’s maybe a little scratchy, it can keep you warm, it’s another name for a story, it gets knitted together to make something that can be both humble and complex. It can get tangled.
A couple of the songs on This Is The Year are as much about tipping the Stetson to country artists and sensibilities of the past. “Sweet Dolly” is a sort of love letter to the pin-up charms of Dolly Parton, who, in her “rhinestone suit,” was “every man’s cowgirl dream.” And a song like “Long Way To Texas” pays homage to the Lone Star State’s gigantic musical footprint, referencing Waylon referencing Bob Wills and alluding to Willie Nelson while sounding like a good-time ramble that does Doug Sahm proud.
“Those guys were doing what they wanted to do,” says Christiana. “They were the outlaws. They were cool as shit.”
Along the way Christiana gets to pay a compliment to the culinary delights of western Louisiana, with a funny line about boudin sausage.
The demands of the stage make it so that Yarn can operate in a couple of different modes — as a rowdy rock band with honky-tonk sensibilities, and as slow and sad country-tinged troubadours. Yarn will play at the Roosterwalk Festival in Martinsville, Virginia at the end of the month. Christiana says the band will perform one set of original material and one of Rolling Stones covers. “It’ll be Yarn Gets Stoned,” he says.
Some bands might be wary of turning the constant motion of road life into subject matter for songs, but Christiana sees the reality of the touring musician as rich creative fodder.
“It’s a constant flow. Every experience creates a new opportunity to write a song,” he says. “It’s to be embraced.”
Wanna go? Yarn plays the Blind Tiger, 1819 Spring Garden St., Greensboro, 9 p.m., $10 – $14, with the Will Overman Band, theblindtiger.com