If you drive through the suburban sprawl surrounding Nashville, headed west towards Jackson, Tennessee, the rolling hills will soon taper to level ground. You’ll know you’re almost there when a field of trees swallowed in kudzu forms hovering masses, almost like ancient creatures gathered alongside the road.
We don’t think about it too much, but there’s something to the landscape of a place. Plenty of artists have tried, but it shapes us in ways we can’t quite name.
“I came to wonder if the artist who commands the landscape might in fact hold the key to the secrets of the human heart: place, personal history, and metaphor,” photographer Sally Mann once wrote, describing a shift in her work from portraiture to landscape photography. “Since my place and its story were givens, it remained for me to find those metaphors: encoded, half-forgotten clues within the Southern landscape.”
Singer and songwriter Erin Rae McKaskle might be capturing the hearts of major music media with her latest album Putting On Airs because she has articulated something of the emotional landscape of our time. She sets the scene in the first track: “The sun is setting on West Nashville, too pretty to look at it straight. How small we are in the grand scheme, how great.”
Erin grew up in Jackson, where music was woven into her family life; singing was a regular part of routine dishwashing and family gatherings. As the daughter of a musician and a therapist, the path to her musical career is no surprise. She was raised in an era that I often hear long-time Jackson residents speak of fondly, when places like the Davis-Kidd bookstore were centers for the city’s small music community to gather and perform. She was immersed among songwriters from an early age, having a family friend in Bemis who brought in artists to play house shows at their farmhouse.
Erin doesn’t speak of her hometown with the same sort of disdain that many people who move on from a small town do; instead there remains a glimmer of nostalgia in her eyes that comes when we remember the parts of childhood that felt like the good ol’ days.
She credits a diverse school setting under the leadership of Virginia Stackens-Crump as an important part of her experience, remembering the impact of celebrating Black History Month with Civil Rights activists speaking to the school.
“I love being from Jackson,” she says. “It helps me feel connected to all different kinds of people. My elementary school years were diverse, and I got introduced to all different kinds of music.”
With that foundation laid, Erin’s family moved to Nashville in 2001, a stark contrast to her hometown. In Jackson, instead of Music Row, the 45-Bypass runs through town, littered with fast food joints. The midtown area where Erin grew up is full of historic homes, both immaculately preserved and crumbling.
She says, “Jackson provided me with some grit,” and I understand this sentiment tinted by my own context of swapping my suburban Middle Tennessee upbringing for life in Jackson. There’s something about making your home in a place stripped of all of the spit shine of a big city’s reputation that makes you dig down deep.
In Nashville, Erin was surrounded by people making a living on their art. Her friends’ parents were symphony members and music industry professionals, but it wasn’t until she graduated high school in 2009 and received a guitar from her dad that music became more of a serious endeavor. Years before had been marked by shyness, but were soon replaced by nights at Café Coco playing music with friends. A semester into college, she’d decided to step away from school and dive head first into music.
For the next few years, Erin repeated the cycle of writing a song and then playing an open mic, meeting friends and future band members along the way. The pieces kept coming together as she connected with both a mentor and a voice teacher who had worked with successful Nashville artists.
“There’s been little gifts along the way this whole time that felt like, as a spiritual person, the universe was telling me to keep going,” she says.
While Erin’s trajectory as a musician seemed to fall right in to place at times, the past nine years have given her plenty of time for self-doubt.
“Ignorance is bliss,” she says. “I didn’t know what I was getting into or the reality of how long it would take.”
In 2011, she recorded her first EP, Crazy Talk, as “Erin Rae and the Meanwhiles” and put out her first full-length album, Soon Enough, in 2015.
In June, her record Putting On Airs released on John Paul White’s record label Single Lock (also home to Jackson artist Joe Garner’s band, The Kernal). The record was recorded at Refuge Foundation for the Arts in Appleton, Wisconsin, a former monastery now used to provide artists a place to create and alleviate the financial burden something like producing an album can create. In a stint of eight days, the entirety of the album was recorded, co-produced by engineer Dan Knobler and Jerry Bernhardt, along with Dominic Billett, working with the reverb in spaces like the chapel.
Songs that have caught the attention of music outlets like NPR sort through some of the big topics in our current cultural landscape but in quiet consideration of the emotional and personal toll they take. In “Bad Mind,” Erin shares a family story of how her cousin was separated from her mother “because she had a woman for a lover in ’98” and the anxiety it caused about her own sexuality. It’s a song that meets the artist in the middle of her thought process.
“The point for me in writing that was to relieve anxiety and allow whatever feelings need to come up come to the surface,” she says.
Listening to the record, you can track the emotional territory Erin has waded deep into for the rest of us. For anyone who’s wrestled with a relationship that didn’t quite work, tried to hold onto the past a little too long, or had to struggle through being at odds with the culture you were raised in, you’re offered consolation in someone who can voice the thoughts you couldn’t. Many of her songs face the tension of feelings that aren’t quite resolved, such as “Can’t Cut Loose,” in which she sings, “Wanna be free like we once were. Want it even now, don’t you?”
“I feel fortunate to have had all the resources I have had like therapy that have allowed me to process emotional stuff; a lot of people don’t have that,” Erin says. “Maybe it allows somebody else to feel something that they need to feel. . . . I hope people feel freer to feel and experience what they need to.”
When asked about how she feels about where she’s come from and where she’s going, Erin says that more than anything she feels grateful for the chance to play more music as she tours for her new album.
“I feel open and excited for whatever it ends up looking like,” she says. “I want to show up for opportunities that arise and continue to have fun making music with friends.”
This kind of contentment is a testament to the personal growth tied up in Erin’s music. She puts it best in “Love Like Before,” where she sings, “Place I been don’t fit right, though I’ve tried every way I can. When it all works out, I’m gonna get my mind right again.”
Erin reminds us maybe it’s not the place we’re from or the place we’re going that will finally make us feel alright. Maybe we’ll resolve like her to take a step back from where we’re standing and find it’s “been sitting right here this whole time.”
Courtney Searcy likes to design things, take pictures, and write words that tell good stories about their community. Jackson became home after she graduated from Union University in 2014, where she studied Graphic Design and Journalism. She currently works as marketing manager at TLM Associates while continuing to make paper goods on the side via her business Fine Company. She thinks the best things in life are porch swings, brunch, art, music, and friends to share it all with.
Kristi Woody is a photographer and storyteller for our Hello Jackson features about locally owned retail stores and restaurants. She also works as the university photographer for Union University and owns her own wedding photography business, Woody & Pearl Photography. In her free time, Kristi enjoys spending time with her husband and rambunctious beagle, Rhett and Chipper respectively. If you can't find Kristi in Jackson, you'll find her in her second favorite place: Disney World!