From “BlackTop Road’ to Ardmore’s MilkBoy
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
By Craig Ostroff
The price of progress can often be the loss of history.
In Greer, S.C., the fastest-growing area in the state, land is being taken by the state to make room for development.
And for singer-songwriter Angela Easterling, it’s a very personal subject. Because not only has she seen open space and green lands sacrificed for “progress” in her hometown, but she’s also watched it happen to her family’s farm.
“Family farms are such an important part of the heritage of our country,” Easterling said in a recent telephone interview. “Part of what this country was founded on was people having their own property and being able to do what they want with it and not having someone come along and take it away from you because they feel like they have a better use for it.
“It’s always surprising to me, with all we know about how we need to conserve and be green and hold onto the land, how people seem to think if there’s open land, you’re hindering progress. It surprises me so many people still feel that land is not worthwhile unless there’s a building on it or a house on it or a Walmart on it.”
To do her part in drawing attention to the plight of not only the Hammett Farm (which dates back to 1791), but also similar farms across the country, Easterling penned “BlackTop Road,” an all-too-true story of a family farm dismantled piece by piece by those who felt it was standing in the way of progress.
“When I was a little kid, it was all farms,” Easterling said of the area. “Now when you drive around, it’s like our farm is in the middle of a suburb. It’s the only open land left, and everybody wants to build something on it. It’s something that’s going to be a struggle every year.
“Every year my aunt has to go to the zoning commission and petition to be kept agricultural zone, because they want to rezone it as a residential area, build houses and apartments there.
“Ironically, all these apartment buildings and complexes in the area have our family name on them. There’s even a condo complex called Hammett Farms, which I think is ironic, because everybody is trying to get the actual Hammetts out of there.”
Even the cover of her sophomore CD, also titled “BlackTop Road,” strikes a different chord than the soft, bright colors of her debut, “Earning Her Wings.” The cover of “BlackTop Road” features Easterling standing on the very road that the government widened by taking land from the family farm (that’s the Hammett Farm on the right side of the photo), with Easterling standing under a cold, dark sky, looking defiantly straight ahead, suitcase in hand and mandolin case at her feet.
“That’s me holding my ground,” Easterling said of the photo. “Inside [the CD package] there are several pictures of my family, in the same places where I am in my pictures. I wanted to give people a feeling that this is real, this is my family. I’m not standing here in front of a barn to be cute; my great-grandfather built this barn, my grandfather built this barn.
“I felt like in this album I needed to be staring straight at the camera; I’m facing all the things in my life, face them head-on.”
And she does just that. If “Earning Her Wings” announced Easterling’s arrival, “BlackTop Road” shows that she’s here to stay. Easterling handles soul-searching topics fearlessly and gracefully, weaving stories that entrance as much by her warm, inviting voice as by her heartfelt lyrics.
The album opens with “American I.D.,” an inquiry into where we fit into the American melting pot when we seem to do little else but cling to our differences. Written in 2004, Easterling said she only felt comfortable singing it in the last several years.
“I wrote it for myself – I was trying to figure out where was my place in this country, where do I belong here?” she said. “Am I an American even though I feel this way about this thing? What is it that ties me to other people in America when we’re so disagreeing on things that seem so fundamentally important? I think, in a way, that song was kind of like a pleading to feel like I belong here, trying to find what I have in common with other people, what makes us Americans.
“I found that what we have in common is so much more than what divides us. The things we have in common, the agreement we have to live together in a democracy – a lot of countries can’t do that. We’re a country of dreamers and people who follow their dreams. We come from all over the place, and for the most part, we do live in peace.”
Easterling also touches on racism and its place in American history in “The Picture,” a haunting melody about a woman (a friend of Easterling’s aunt) who finds a photograph in her recently deceased father’s belongings, how it changes everything she thought she knew about her father and how she tries to explain it to herself.
“This was something I wanted to write about because I feel like it’s a part of our history,” Easterling said. “People just don’t want to look at it, “It’s all over, it only happened back then, it doesn’t have anything to do with me,’ and I don’t think that’s true. I think the things that happened in our past, they affect us more than we want to admit.
“It’s deeply personal, yet it relates to everyone. As you go through her thought process, her first impulse is to destroy the evidence, but she realizes that doesn’t change anything. Her second impulse is to rationalize, to make excuses. But the truth is she’ll never know.
“Some of my ancestors owned slaves, some didn’t. Some fought for the North, some fought for the South. You want to go back and ask them why. “How on earth could you have ever felt like this was the right thing to do?’ And if I descend from this person, does it make me a bad person? How does this relate to my identity, knowing this history? That’s what I was getting at in a larger context. I think we need to talk about these things – there can’t really be any reconciliation until people are honest about what happened.”
But “BlackTop Road” isn’t all serious and solemn. Far from it, in fact. As she did on her previous album, Easterling includes a tribute to a country music legend (“A.P. Carter’s Blues”), a song written by an ancestor (“Stars over the Prarie,” written by her great-grandfather), love songs and a good old-fashioned romp (“Big Wide World”).
“I’m at that time in my life where everything I’ve been going through, being on the road, everything [her family] has gone through these last few years, that’s really what I felt I had to write about,” Easterling said. “That’s just what struck my fancy. But my whole life isn’t just sitting around thinking about all the bad things in the world. Very little of it is.
“I look at writing an album as almost like writing a book – each song is a chapter; they have to kind of work together. And this album has songs that are uplifting and positive.”
Easterling, who played to a very appreciative, packed MilkBoy Coffee last March will return to the venue June 28 for an 8 p.m. show that will feature tunes from her debut album as well as from “BlackTop Road,” which will be released July 14 (visit Easterling’s MySpace page at www.myspace.com/angelaeasterling or her Web site www.angelaeasterling.com for ordering information), during a tour that will see her play more than 20 (and counting) dates up and down the East Coast through August.
“Playing live, that’s why I do this,” Easterling said. “I love performing. And I love sharing the songs with people. When you put a song out in front of a crowd, that’s when you give them a life.”
And though there may be darker songs on her latest album, Easterling assures that her show will be just as fun and energetic as it was the last time she visited.
“I am a very happy, positive, upbeat person. I tell the stories behind some of these songs, especially “BlackTop Road,’ and that song is very angry and it makes me angry, but I’m certainly not angry the whole show. I try to give each song what it requires. The show will still be fun and upbeat and lively.”