Feather by Feather

From the beginning of Bill Callahan’s career when he recorded under the name Smog until the present releasing music with his given name, Callahan has been signed to the record label Drag City. In the early 2000s, while still using the Smog moniker, Callahan was one of three white male recording artists signed to Drag City who were working in similar artistic modes. The other two were Will Oldham and David Berman. In this time period, Oldham was releasing his music under the name “Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy” and Berman was the only constant member of the band Silver Jews. Besides all adopting aliases and stage names for their music, this Drag City troika also utilized country music melodies and instrumentation in their music during the early part of the 21st century. For example, Silver Jews released their fourth album Bright Flight in 2001 which includes the song “Tennessee”:

While not a traditional country song, it details the narrator convincing his lover to “leave Kentucky [and] come to Tennessee.” Specifically, the move would be to Nashville, the country music hotbed known as Music City. In the song, Berman sings one of the great country music couplets about making country music:

We’re gonna live in Nashville and I’ll make a career
Out of writing sad songs and gettin’ paid by the tear.

In addition to having a steel guitar featured in the musical accompaniment, Berman is joined by his wife Cassie Berman to sing the lines: “I’ve looked through offices and honky tonks for a man man enough to be / Mr. and Mrs. Tennessee.” No one would say that the Bermans are the second coming of George Jones and Tammy Wynette, but their charm goes a long way towards realizing David Berman’s vision in “Tennessee” of a country music life in Nashville for the two of them as “Mr. and Mrs. Tennessee.”

Oldham started his musical career releasing music under a number of different names, including Palace Music and Palace Brothers, before setting on a new persona in 1999: Bonnie “Prince” Billy. After releasing a few albums under this name, he put out an album in 2004 called Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music. The central conceit of the record is that Bonnie “Prince” Billy covers selected songs from the Palace Music and Palace Brothers catalog — it’d be a stretch to refer to them as “hits” — and reworking the arrangements to instead adopt a classic Nashville sound. The best way to do so is by utilizing the best, go-to Nashville musicians, especially the great Hargus “Pig” Robbins on piano, known for his work from the aforementioned George Jones to Loretta Lynn to Bob Dylan’s 1966 album Blonde on Blonde. A good representative from the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music album is “You Will Miss Me When I Burn”:

Robbins’ piano, a steel guitar, and a fiddle punctuate Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s vocals that portray the wide range of feelings associated with love lost. The narrator warns his former lover of all that she will encounter without him:

There is absence, there is lack
There are wolves here abound
You will miss me
When I turn around.

Despite these words, the haunting refrain of the song that the narrator sings is: “When you have no one / No one can hurt you.” He seems to be saying this to himself in the wake of his love’s departure as an expression of reassurance, even though the sense of loss is palpable, emphasized by the mournful instrumentation. Bonnie “Prince” Billy undercuts this reading by making the song a duet with a female vocalist joining him for the refrain. Their joint performance provides ambiguity to the song as the female voice is also singing the refrain, highlighting the feelings of the narrator’s lover who is also dealing with her own sense of loss with the end of the relationship. By “covering” this song with his Bonnie “Prince” Billy persona and transforming it into a country music duet, Oldham represents different perspectives within the world of the song, deepening the sense of loss caused by the relationship’s conclusion. 

Turning to Callahan’s take on the country music duet, he opens 2003’s Supper, his tenth full-length album as Smog, with the song “Feather by Feather”:

The song opens with a scraping sound as if there’s a knocking inside a house from an old furnace or hearing the ghost of the woman who still lives within the walls. An eerie organ starts playing, making the listener wonder if there’s more early-Smog noise experimentation on this album. Then, the strumming of an acoustic guitar can be heard before Callahan begins singing, “You spent half of the morning / Just trying to wake up.” He sounds slightly halting in his delivery as if he just work himself up right before singing. He continues:

Half the evening
Just trying to calm down.

As Callahan finishes the line, the entire band of electric guitar, bass, drums, steel guitar, and the no-longer eerie organ swing in with the country-est of country music chord progressions. Callahan has used steel guitar in his music before, but it is featured prominently in this first song of Supper. The band sound certain and collected in its playing matched by Callahan, who is no longer tentative in his singing as in the opening. Instead, he is assured in his low, confident vocal delivery. He sings:

And you live for the same things
A cloudburst seems rarer every time.

The narrator in the song is sharing his anxious state of mind while ensuring the listener that his relationship is not the source of his inner disquiet. Acting in lockstep and “living for the same things” is a good relationship goal – very healthy, Bill Callahan!

Callahan and the band move on to the second verse: “And it’s crow vs. crow.” With these words, Callahan is joined by another singer, Sarabeth Tucek. Tucek sings a harmony line to accompany Callahan, though the tempo of their vocals don’t exactly match up. This asymmetry invokes the feel of the conflict between the crows that they are singing about. The duo continue to sing:

A brawl in mid-air
Beak click on beak clack
No reason is there
But for the brawl in mid-air.

Similar to the songs by the Silver Jews and Bonnie “Prince” Billy previously explored, the Callahan/Tucek pairing on “Feather by Feather” is not a traditional country music duet, but rather Callahan’s take on this archetype. He uses the form and all of the standard signifiers, but skews them slightly for his own artistic purposes. In this case, using birds as an extended metaphor to explore how inner turmoil can affect a relationship. Not typical country music fare! The bird imagery continues:

If you’re losing your wings
Feather by feather.

These are beautiful, alluring lines sung in a lovely way by Callahan and Tucek. Throughout his career, Callahan returns to birds as symbols in his writing. A few examples include “Too Many Birds”, “All Thoughts Are Prey To Some Beast”, and “First Bird.” It’s a representative mode of expression for Callahan as he told Loud and Quiet in a 2022 interview:

“Everyone has birds around them and things that grow; you know, it’s how I relate to the world and how I conceive of things, through natural images.”

While birds are familiar territory for Callahan, he has not featured feathers as a motif nearly as much. One subtle reference for Callahan may be Neil Young’s song “Birds” off of his 1970 album After the Gold Rush:

In Young’s song, he uses feathers as a symbol for the acceptance of change for a loved one following the dissolution of a relationship. For Callahan, the gradual losing of wings, feather by feather, is also about change within a relationship, but instead of an indication about the other person in the couple, it’s marking the evolution of the narrator himself. He is growing but not without resistance as noted by the lines about crows fighting earlier in the song. This transformation can be lovely as noted by Callahan and Tucek singing the following:

Love the way they whip away
On the wind.

After a brief musical interlude, Callahan resumes singing the song without Tucek’s accompaniment:

When they make the movie of your life
They’re going to have to ask you
To do your own stunts
Because nobody, nobody, nobody, nobody
Could pull off the same shit as you
And still come out alright.

This beautiful gem of a verse is an example of Callahan’s unique perspective. The song is a serious exploration of inner conflict and its impact on a loved one, but Callahan inserts a laugh-out-loud observation such as this one, allowing for the humor to breathe a little air into the room of the song. Wry, ironic, and humorous lines continue throughout Callahan’s work as a way to offset the seriousness of the tone and subject matter of his material. 

Moving on to the next verse, the central turmoil of the narrator is further emphasized when Callahan sings:

It’s Ali vs. Clay
Both pummeling away.

The conflict that happens within the relationship isn’t between the couple, but within the narrator as he embodies both Muhammad Ali and Cassius Clay at once. Callahan emphasizes the point by singing, “A champ always fights themself.” The narrator is indeed a champion boxer as indicated by Callahan and Tucek repeating the following line over and over: “You are a fighter.” But then Callahan subverts another typical boxing cliché by referencing a fighter’s enthusiasm and determination — “Kid’s got heart.” He puns on this idea by using the expression to refer to someone’s passion for another within a relationship instead of the original boxing allusion. 

The song concludes with Callahan repeating the central image of the song one final time: “If you’re losing your wings / Feather by feather.” He doesn’t sing the words, but rather speaks them. Bob Dylan wrote the following n his 2022 book The Philosophy of Modern Song:

“What is it about lapsing into narration that makes you think that the singer is suddenly revealing the truth?”

Callahan seems to agree with Dylan’s sentiments as the shift to spoken word is used to reiterate and underscore the point of the song. It is not a full recitation by Callahan, but it is a recognition of the long tradition of inner song monologues, especially in country music. Dylan references this tradition in his book, but he has also played with that mode himself as previously explored on Recliner Notes

Callahan’s spoken word ending provides a stamp of conclusion to the song. It is also yet another country music signifier within “Feather by Feather,” along with the melody, the steel guitar, and Callahan’s duet with Tucek. The song demonstrates how Callahan can play with and even subvert the country music form in a similar way to his peers Berman and Oldham. This adoption of genre provides Callahan with the framework within which to explore deep, emotional themes about relationships, driven by the realization that the conflict with a partner is not actually a fight with the loved one, but actually a manifestation of the tumult and unrest within oneself. It is Ali and Clay battling away inside. These are considerable realizations that prove, indeed, the kid’s got heart. 

Image: Chicken Feathers, circa 1840, Photogenic drawing negative, 7 5/16 × 7 5/8″, Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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