Like many young singer/songwriters, Luke Pruitt traveled to Nashville to seek his muse and find his voice.
Like only a handful of these hopefuls, he achieved his goal. And like practically none of them, he did so by packing up and heading back to where he came from.
Partly for that reason, mainly because of Pruitt’s unique gifts as a storyteller and artist, his music sounds like none other you’ve heard.
On his debut, Songs of Home, Part 1, he looks at tlife through the prism of his hometown of Fort Smith, Arkansas. The people he grew up with, the places he left behind and then returned to reclaim as his own, are the paints he uses to create his narratives.
And now, on Songs of Home, Part 2, Pruitt’s vision probes deeper into the complexity of his characters and their lives. Few contemporary artists can rival his insight, his ability to connect with the trials and triumphs of “ordinary” people, and to animate it all through music that resonates with their stories.
The aspirations of hard-working immigrants inspire the romantic marimbas and mariachi twin trumpets of “Coyotaje.” After an intimate chamber group introduction, “Winter, 2001” poses a familiar question — “Where were you do the day JFK died?” — and then transforms the answer into a conversation between a father and son many years later. And on “Born In The Wrong Time,” a young wanderer, “lost in the binary wreckage of the digital age,” hits the road in search of “Kerouac days and White Album nights” to the tune of a road-trip blues shuffle … which dissolves unexpectedly into a gorgeous orchestral rendering of “America the Beautiful.” Yet on “American Home,” another refugee comes back, battered, wiser and ready to accept that his adventures have led him back home to stay.
Pruitt’s journey was circular too. He began writing songs in his mid teens, even then focusing on the hidden currents that flowed beneath the surfaces of everyday life in Fort Smith. Eventually, he left to facilitate his explorations near Music City, U.S.A. First as a student at Middle Tennessee State University, then on his own in Murfreesboro and Nashville, Tennessee, Pruitt struggled to take his writing to a higher level — higher than he’d achieved thus far but also higher than the bar that many of his fellow travelers had set for themselves.
“I never did write in the Music Row fashion, where you sit down with other writers for four hours and come up with a commercial-ready song,” he admits.
“Writers in Nashville all live in the same place. They read the same stuff. They see the same billboards. They play for other musicians. I was more interested in playing for people because they approach music differently.”
Disillusioned, Pruitt essentially gave up on music and returned to Fort Smith. There, like the protagonist of “American Home,” he settled into a world that was less glamorous but, for him, more rewarding. He met and married his wife and they began building a family with the birth of their first son in 2012.
Then something strange happened: In the neighborhoods where he’d grown up, music came calling once again. The streets where he’d played baseball as a kid, the folks he got into conversations with — everything began calling to him, with the voices of songs waiting to be written.
Pruitt responded with Songs of Home, Part 1, and expands on it now with Songs of Home, Part 2. “The theme is the basic concept of home,” he explains. “When I conceived the idea, it was about looking out my front door to America. It’s a story about the human condition.”
His process on Part 2 builds on the foundation established by Part 1. To better understand the Fort Smith neighbors he hoped to portray, Pruitt began by interviewing an immigrant family. What he found proved a revelation and the catalyst for much of what would follow for Part 2.
“The older of two brothers has been in America a little longer and speaks a little more English,” Pruitt says. “He said, ‘You know, I see how immigrants are portrayed in the American media. I see how angry people are. I just hope that through this song you can show our roots.’ That was very sobering to hear because I really didn’t know what I was getting into. But telling their real stories became my goal.”
Pruitt’s time spent with that family moved him to write three of the songs on Part 2: “Coyotaje,” “My First Job” and “Stranger.” Some of the album’s other songs are disarming; “Brothers” celebrates the kind of love only siblings can share. “Pray,” with its a gentle jazz feel, is a simple invitation involving two friends to stay unified through prayer no matter what roads they choose to follow. Some are rich in wry humor; “Two Kinds of People” satirizes the breakdown of our national dialog into polarized, incommunicative monologs. (“Get mad. Get scared. It’s what you’re supposed to do.”) There is one traditional love song as well — “Because Of You” — because love is also a part of Pruitt’s experience.
And one amazing track, “A Small, Good Thing,” recounts the shattering impact of a young child’s death and the parents’ seemingly impossible struggle toward recovery.
Each song is an epic on its own, or at least a snapshot from some golden moment preserved for later reflection. Woven together by Calvin Turner’s empathetic production, Part 2 is also a single work, a travelog of the spirit comprised of multiple themes and perspectives. Above all else, it’s a milestone in Pruitt’s ongoing evolution as an artist.
“What I’ve learned about writing songs is that it’s not like making something from a piece of raw metal, a physical thing that you can touch and that can achieve some purpose,” he sums up. “It’s abstract. It’s intangible. That’s what I realized when I got back home to Fort Smith. That pushed me toward telling real stories, with real people.”