If you take out a map and measure the midway point between San Francisco and Chapel Hill, North Carolina — the homes of songwriters Avi Vinocur and Patrick Dyer Wolf, respectively — you’ll find an unincorporated town called Goodnight, Texas (population at last count: 18). That’s what the duo discovered when they went looking for the center of their long-distance collaboration, a musical project that sounds, appropriately enough, like a cross-country drive on Interstate 40: Expansive, full of possibility, American in every sense of the word — the perfect place for missing someone but regretting nothing, for losing yourself in the crackle of guitar through speakers and having a good long think.
After meeting in San Francisco in 2007 through the Vinocur and Wolf built a friendship based on trading words and tunes. “I had never been able to sing with anyone before Pat. I was terrible at it,” says Vinocur. “But I didn’t even have to try to harmonize with him. I still sort of have a hard time believing how easy it still is.” When Wolf moved to North Carolina in 2009, the songwriters kept in touch, finding their stylistic midpoint amidst banjo, guitar and mandolin, a love of working-class anthems. Though the two singers have notably different styles — Wolf showcasing a lifelong love of acoustic folk; Vinocur clearly comes from the world of garage rock, and leans toward darker blues — the duo shared a mutual admiration and easy harmony, as well as a fascination with late 19th century small-town America: A vision of a grittier, simpler world, full of raw pain and mysterious beauty. In 2012, after picking up a rhythm section (Alex Nash and Scott G. Padden), Goodnight, Texas released their debut LP, A Long Life of Living, to much critical acclaim.
The band’s contagiously entertaining dynamic at live shows, as well as the album’s energy, soul and range — from red-blooded, foot-stomping rock ’n’ roll to wistful front porch ballads to haunting tales of doomed romance — has made devotees out of both music critics and a growing legion of fans spread out across the country. Goodnight, Texas spent the last year and a half out on the road, supporting acts like Shakey Graves and Rusted Root, in addition to playing two sold-out hometown shows at the Fillmore alongside Bombay Bicycle Club and Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers. The band released their sophomore record, Uncle John Farquhar, in the summer of 2014.
“It’s a more upbeat, a little more fun, but it’s still got some heaviness,” says Wolf of the new record. “The highs are higher and the lows are lower.” Vinocur, in particular, is excited to release “Dearest Sarah,” based on an actual Civil War letter written from husband to wife in 1861, a song Vinocur’s been working at for nearly eight years. “I wrote it in 2006 as a 4/4 acoustic guitar song and played it at two shows before taking it out of my set list.” says Vinocur “It was a lot of lyrics to remember and I was worried I would mess them up and ruin the song’s impact. I knew it was a significant song to me, but it wasn’t quite right yet.” Vinocur says the song was “all but forgotten until I re-watched Ken Burns’ Civil War where Sullivan Ballou’s letter is read. Very shortly thereafter, on a particularly lonely trip to New Zealand in 2012, I re-learned it on a rooftop in Auckland and switched it to mandolin and waltz time. I added the bridge riff and the whole vibe came together. Finally I felt it was done and we recorded for release on our new record, 8 years after I first wrote it. “
The album itself is named for Wolf’s great-great-great grandfather, and a sermon he delivered on the occasion of Abraham Lincoln’s death graces the record’s liner notes. “In my eyes, he serves as kind of the first entry in the scrapbook that is this album concept,” says Wolf of the old photo of Farquhar that originally captured his imagination. “I was thinking of the album as a scrapbook – a collection of clippings over the course of the past century and a half,” says Wolf. “The oldest entries of the album package relate to John Farquhar, who was my maternal great-great-great grandfather, a minister in Lancaster PA: the cover of his Abraham Lincoln sermon is the cover of the liner notes booklet. Inside the booklet a letter that he wrote to his cousin in Massachusetts during the Civil War after visiting makeshift hospitals right outside the battle of Gettysburg. These documents are sort of the anchor of the work, so we’ve got this familial link to a seminal point in America’s history and an example of both his (John Farquar’s) public and private voices. “
Americana is arguably an overused term at the moment — but what sets Goodnight, Texas apart from the pack is its richly imagined, full-color stories. In the longstanding folk tradition of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash, Goodnight, Texas sings songs that are each a world in and of themselves — transporting listeners from the battlefields of the deep south to a saloon full of hard-drinking but good-natured regulars to the nervous feeling in the stomach of a poor boy about to ask for his girl’s hand in marriage.
Uncle John Farquhar showcases this talent perhaps better than ever, with the two songwriters’ styles playing off each other to great effect, balancing a wry sense of humor with an obvious respect for the ghosts of this country’s past. Whether in Vinocur’s realm of epic sagas of loss and animated hit-the-road tunes or Wolf’s natural gift for deceptively sparse, emotion-driven songwriting, we can feel the sun-baked earth, taste the sweat of a day’s labor, hear the hound dog howling in the yard. Our protagonists are lonely travelers and scorned lovers ad sympathetically conjured bank robbers, and for the duration of a song, we are rooting for them with all we’ve got.