Jackson Emmer's '22 in 2022' project finds new sounds in classic country western music
For most of this year, as Carbondale musician Jackson Emmer worked to release 22 singles in a calendar year with the help of nearly two dozen collaborators, he had plenty of reasons to doubt the possibility of completing his “22 in 2022” project.
His computer died twice. Artwork got held up. He says he questioned the process just about every other week and didn’t acknowledge that he could and would finish the project until a marathon writing and recording session in Nashville in October.
“There's just been all these moments where it's like, ‘we're not going to make the deadline, I don't know what to do,’ and then you just you figure it out, because I made a public promise,” Emmer said in an interview at Aspen Public Radio’s studios last week.
Emmer had set the goal — up from the 12-singles-in-12-months target he initially had in mind thanks to an ambitious idea from his wife Olivia — in an effort to shake up the traditional model of album-driven music promotion and get a bit more sonic leeway with the music he released.
Emmer wanted to give people a reason to listen to his music throughout the year, but thought 22 of his gravel-voiced western tracks in one January-to-December stretch might be “overkill.”
“In my mind, I figured … people would get tired of it and not really care or want to listen,” Emmer said. “And some people felt that way and didn't tune in anymore, but a lot of people did continue to listen to my music throughout the year.”
The results of his project have indicated otherwise.
“This project has, in a lot of ways, just lifted me up,” Emmer said. “And it's been a reminder that there are people out there who want to hear this kind of thing, if you can find them, and you make something deserving of their ears, which is what I strive to do.”
To him, the listenership is also a sign that there’s still an appetite for this kind of music, which combines the twang of country westerns fit for a spin on the old phonograph with electronic sonics that sound right at home on digital streaming platforms.
“Do I think there's a place for it? Yes. Do I always know what that place is? No,” he said.
Take, for instance, a song like “Country Music’s Coming Back,” released in September. Emmer sings about “steel guitars and Cadillacs,” sure, but also about tech workers who dream of buying a farm, and of people who are discovering country music for the first time in one of those reaction videos you sometimes find on YouTube.
So, is country music coming back? In Emmer’s view, it never really went away.
“It's folky. It's a little bit old school. It's lyrically driven,” Emmer said. “It's different. It's not pop music, and it's not mainstream music and it's not really trying to be, but still, there's room for it in the world.”
Emmer knows some of these songs sound old-timey in a way that might appeal to the earnest nostalgic, with storytelling odes like “I Love You Now, I Loved You Then” and “Johnny Turblatt & Tequila Sunrise.”
“Sometimes when you hear them on a record, it sounds outdated or nostalgic, or referential to an older genre,” Emmer said. “And I think that in a lot of ways, that's part of what drew me to it.”
Consider that this is coming from a musician who grew up in Palo Alto, the son of two lawyers whose album collection was mostly showtunes, jazz and motown, with just a sprinkling of folksier Bob Wills and Willie Nelson on the shelves.
Emmer said he spent part of his childhood listening to Spanish radio with his nanny or babysitters.
And as he got older, he listened to punk rock, and “skater music,” and hip hop.
“There's so much bravado in those that I loved,” Emmer said. “I love it even more now. … But back then, I was looking for something ‘authentic,’ and so I sort of found acoustic music and folk music and just started following the history of that.”
He found it, in part, at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale in a bluegrass class with longtime music teacher George Weber. Emmer spent summers burning CDs for fellow camp counselors in California and discovering music unlike anything he’d ever heard before.
Emmer recognizes that he’s not born and bred in the country western lifestyle. The Jack Johnson-sunny “Walkman Bumpin,’” released back in May, references a youth spent at the skatepark, not on horseback in the desert or working out in the pasture of a ranch.
But there’s something about this kind of music — the yippee-ki-yay of “Rodeo on a Valley Road,” or the ghost town ode of “Terlingua,” both released in June, or the “sweet agave” lyrics of “Wild Sage, Desert Rose,” which he co-wrote with the legendary folk singer Tom Paxton and released in August — that Emmer says just feels right.
“It's addictive, you know, when you find your people,” he said. “I didn't grow up with, like, cow patties on my boots, but anytime I'm in that sphere, it just feels like home, the music feels like home.”
To Emmer, making this music is worth a shot even or especially with his background in mind.
“You’ve got to grapple with impostor syndrome a little bit, but the more you look into the stories of the West, and of any kind of art, the more you realize it's the outsiders and the unexpected people who become obsessed and make something moving, and they're the next ones that people listen to,” Emmer said.