"I've always thought of the BoDeans
as a truly American band," says Kurt Neumann, the founder, primary writer and frontman of the veteran Milwaukee-based group. "We were blue-collar kids straight out of the heartland-how could we be anything else? 'Roots rock' was a label I fought when I was younger, but I came to realize that if by 'roots' you meant blues, rock, country and soul all slammed together into one sound, then I'd say yes-that is the sound of American-made music."
Neumann fully embraces that notion on American Made, the BoDeans' eleventh album. Its dozen songs are laced through with strands of indigenous roots elements-Heartland hoedown folk ("American," with guest Jake Owen spinning out the guitar solo), Celtic-rooted mountain music ("Walk Through This World," "Flyaway"), zydeco ("Everything You Wanted"), Southern roadhouse soul ("Don't Bring Me Down"), Chicago blues ("Shake the Fever") and 100-proof roots rock ("All the World"). These tracks are played with heartfelt emotion as well as jaw-dropping skillfulness by the band-Neumann on vocals and guitars, original member Michael Ramos (Patty Griffin, John Mellencamp) on keyboards and accordion, longtime BoDeans bassist Ryan Bowman and new member Warren Hood, a fiddle/violin virtuoso from Austin.
As it turns out, the album title bears a thematic resonance as well as a stylistic one. With American Made, the BoDeans have created a soul-stirring song cycle that directly reflects the American experience at this critical moment in our history. The album-which also includes a powerful rendition of Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire" - was inspired by Neumann's blue-collar upbringing and his desire to express what a great country America remains, despite its troubles and the challenges facing it today.
"As we've moved into the new millennium, we've begun to question our identity as Americans-who we are, or who we want to be," says Neumann. "With the onset of the Tea party and the Occupy movement, it feels like we're pulling in two very different directions. The song 'American' talks about this land of 'endless possibility'' and 'Where else in the world you ever gonna find this kind of ideology?' We're lucky to have the rights and opportunities that we have, but I believe those rights come with a responsibility to help each other along. It's wrong to stockpile millions or billions of dollars while all your neighbors struggle to survive. It feels like we're losing the common sense that has always guided us, and that worries me. We're so out of touch with each other-and just trying to find an American-made product has become almost comical. I wanted to bring that all of that to the surface-hence the album title." If American Made is about resilience in the face of daunting obstacles, the same can be said of the unforeseen circumstances that led to the album's creation. Sam Llanas, one of the original members, left the band last year in order to launch a solo career, the news coming just one day after the release of the band's previous LP, Indigo Dreams. When Llanas quit, Neumann could have thrown in the towel, but he chose to stick with what he'd begun nearly three decades earlier as the band's driving force and the architect of its sound. So he and his fellow band members cinched up their belts and carried on. Since then, Neumann has discovered that while unexpected change can be difficult, it can also be revitalizing.
The first order of business was to come up with a cohesive batch of material-Neumann didn't realize going into the process that it would yield what amounted to the most intensely personal songs he'd ever written.