About The Project
Tongue River Stories is a recording project about place and belonging. The writing and recording for this project is being done on a hundred year old ranch, a place which is both isolated and at the center of an American cowboy culture which runs generations deep. Songs for this project are born out of a landscape where arrowheads lie next to fossils next to hundred-year-old cedar fence posts alongside tracks of horses set rock solid in the mud from the last good rain. Stories inside of stories inside of stories. Songs recorded in meadows as quiet and open as they have been for a hundred, a thousand years.
Tongue River Stories came out of my own hiatus from the road and from writing. Two years I moved to the small family ranch in the Tongue River Valley where I had been spending time between tours over the last ten years. I have been lucky here to work with my hands and with horses, to settle into the ways of ranch work and animals, sagebrush, stars, silence and space. This place took me in. I wrote because I needed to write.
Here the place sounds like it always has; coyotes, horses ambling by in the half-light, birds, cottonwoods shushing in the breeze, silence so deafening it almost hurts. When the last note ends, that's what you hear. Crickets. Cottonwood leaves. Silence. I wanted to bring musicians out to record them in the place they were written, and hand picked musicians who I knew would be open to the wonder of the place and the experience, whose musical abilities would allow them to capture the sense of movement and flow and vastness that is at the heart of the place and the work and the songs themselves.
I also wanted to film the recordings; Dawson Dunning, an award-winning documentary film maker from one of the earliest ranching families on Otter Creek in the Tongue River Valley, was a natural choice. Dawson and I began a correspondence last winter about art and writing and place and belonging that developed into a collaboration on the project. For Dawson, whose work on films has taken him around the world and back again, the project was a bit of a homecoming; an opportunity to capture and express the heart of the place that is so much a part of him. So Tongue River Stories is a project about place and belonging.
It is also about bearing witness to a place and a people and a way of life that now hangs in the balance; the recent leasing of the Otter Creek coal seams would involve a railroad running the length of the Tongue River. The effects of such a development would forever change the landscape and the agricultural viability of the valley. Coal Bed Methane development is also encroaching on the Tongue River Valley (CBM development involves pumping out the aquifer that feeds wells and springs in order to extract methane gas. The saline discharge water is toxic to crops and streams). So far the resilience of the people and place has held out against these threats. These songs are stories that this place told me.
The songs on tongue river stories came out of my own quiet place of refuge and a personal sense of intimacy with landscape. I wanted to bring musicians together who could help capture the sense of wonder of this place, the quiet, the vastness. Some songs were recorded outside, some miles up in a quiet meadow, some in my cabin.
The musicians on tongue river stories include: Byron Isaacs (Brooklyn, NY) from the band Ollabelle and the Levon Helm Band – bass and drums. Jon Neufeld (Portland, OR), Jon plays with several Portland area bands. His most current project is Black Prairie, a collaboration with members of the Decemberists. Aaron Youngberg (Fort Collins, CO) engineering the recording project and also playing pedal steel, Aaron plays with a number of bands including Finders and Youngberg. Erin Youngberg (Fort Collins, CO) Bass and harmony. She plays in Finders and Youngberg.
This project is made possible by the generosity and support of people and groups who have donated money, time and energy to the Tongue River stories. To all of you, I am so grateful; it's that unique kind of gratitude that engenders inspiration. Much thanks to Steve Saroff, Phil Gardner, Dick Manning, and those who wish to remain anonymous.