Kurt Neumann of the BoDeans has looked around, seen what's going on in America, and written about it in songs since the 1980s.
With the band, he helped create roots rock in the late 20th century, combining Midwestern and Southern rock 'n' roll influences with singer/songwriter lyrical craftsmanship.
Though the band started in Wisconsin, Neumann is now writing and creating music just outside Austin, Texas.
On June 12, he will release a BoDeans album without fellow band founder and singer/songwriter Sammy Llamas, who left for a solo career. The band is out on the road, stopping in at Salt Lake City's State Room on Sunday, May 27.
Said Neumann, calling from home, "We find ourselves in a little bit of a place of reintroducing ourselves with Sam's departure. We really wanted to come out a little more focused."
The tour, and new album, includes such musicians as Noah Levy, a frequent BoDeans drummer; Michael Ramos on keyboards; Austin fiddler Warren Hood; and guitarist Jake Owen.
Neumann said he was inspired to delve into all forms of folk after being given an anthology by producer and musician T Bone Burnett when the band was collaborating with him in-studio in 2007.
"The music I heard on that anthology was not like my mind-set of what I thought folk music really was," said Neumann. "In reality, it was not that way at all. It was fast and driving, banjos, talking about strife and hard times. So, I don't know if my songs are technically folk, but they felt that way -- a few chords and some good lyrics. Talking about things like 'Fly Away,' which I call a prison song. Growing up hearing Johnny Cash sing about it like that, it was just instilled in my head that this is what you write about in folk songs."
Making the record
Neumann and Ramos took the music they were working on out on the town in Austin and tried it out. They had a regular Tuesday night gig, from 10 p.m. to midnight, where they played only works-in-progress.
"In everyday America, you don't have people who can make the schedule," said Neumann of the Austin night owls. "But people who do wander out there have an open mind about it. We didn't really advertise. We just wanted to play for whoever showed up."
Neumann said it was something he'd wanted to do with Llamas for a lot of years, but could not, as they lived in different parts of the country.
"And he did not work on the records much, either, so I was kind of left alone to do that down here, too. I played the guitars on all the record, and very often ended up playing bass and drums and singing."
The American part
Neumann said he didn't start the "American Made" album with an overriding theme, but ended up with a good deal of songs about the divided American condition he sees all around him.
"I think folk music is so appropriate to where America is right now," he said. "We are expending so much energy trying to pull apart."
We are a nation made of people coming together, not pulling apart, Neumann points out.
"The song 'America' on the record is about that. Let's get back to common sense and remember what a great free country this is. Freedom is such a luxury. You can't just take, take, take. You have to give back to keep it. All those things were on my mind when I made this record, and then some of what I was dealing with, too, with Sam's departure. My mind-set was to keep it real, guitar-based Americana, which is what BoDeans were always all about."
Neumann hopes to help audiences to, at least while at the show, see some common ground.
"I think most of us aren't asking for all that much, but we would like to be able to afford a place to live reasonably well, and maybe have a chance for our kids to go to college. I think that much most of us can agree on."