In 2011, Bill Callahan released his most critically-acclaimed album, Apocalypse. Recorded in the border town of Tornillo, Texas, the tone of the album is informed by Callahan’s relocation to Texas a few years before as he recalled in a 2022 interview with Uproxx:
“When I first moved to Texas, I always felt like I was in a Western. Austin was a lot less developed then, so there were a lot more old buildings and things just crumbling and it had a very Western feel. So, I think that just kind of seeped into my perspective.”
In addition to a Western approach for Apocalypse, it’s also immediately apparent that Callahan is attempting to wrestle with deep, old American myths as evidenced by the music and writing of the opening track, “Drover”:
The song commences with a cold opening, Callahan singing in his deep voice without any musical accompaniment: “The real people went away.” Immediately, the tapping of drum sticks initiates Callahan’s intense strumming of his acoustic guitar as he continues singing, “But I’ll find a better way, someday.” After this line, the bass and drums come in along with an electric guitar that rings out as a complement to Callahan’s mariachi-esque guitar. This minor chord with a slight tremolo on the electric guitar gestures towards any number of genres, styles, or musicians, whether it be the 50s twang of Link Wray or Duane Eddy; a spaghetti western soundtrack composed by Ennio Morricone; a roadhouse scene in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks as composed by Angelo Badalamenti; or a nod to Calexico, the desert noir combo who are contemporaries of Callahan’s. Choosing from any of these references, the electric guitar chord opens a door to a darkness that hovers close at hand throughout the entire song. Callahan finishes the opening verse by singing, “Leaving only me and my dreams,” emphasizing a classic symbol of the American West, namely the cowboy’s solitary place within the Western landscape. The narrator isn’t quite alone as he is driving cattle through this landscape as Callahan sings in the next verse:
I drove all the beast down right under your nose
The lumbering footloose power, the bull and the rose
Don’t touch them, don’t try to hurt them.
In a 2011 interview with The Guardian, Callahan commented on “Drover” and its importance as the opening song on Apocalypse:
“I think this is a really inward-looking record in a way that I haven’t really done in the past…The cattle in [“Drover”] are things inside you, so I suppose it’s about corralling the emotions.”
The-cattle-as-emotions metaphor is strong in the second verse as the cattle/emotions are described as a “lumbering footloose power.” The narrator warns the listener, “Don’t touch them, don’t try to hurt them.” You best keep your distance! Callahan expanded on this metaphor in a different 2011 interview, this time with The Rumpus:
“It is more about harnessing the power of the mind. And about seeing all aspects of consciousness and the subconsciousness as being large beasts with legs. It’s also about Western expansion and cultivation as correlating to what is called enlightenment and The Enlightenment in America, as represented by the Declaration of Independence. The wilderness created by breaking the bonds of colonialism. This was an apocalypse.”
Through “Drover,” Callahan connects the personal with the public as the cattle represent the inward thoughts of a loner cowboy who serves as the song’s narrator. This narrator tries to tame his feelings by breaking with society and forcing a move to the wilderness of the American West. He is alone with his emotions in this landscape because, as Callahan says in the cold opening, “the real people went away.” This is a reference to the Native Americans as Callahan cites in The Rumpus interview the “apocalypse” of settling this stolen land. “The real people went away” is a weak, passive statement by the narrator as he seems to be hiding the blatant fact that the white settlers were the reason for the displacement of the Native Americans from this land.
In the same interview in The Rumpus, Callahan says that “Drover” is about “untethered perspectives…a lot of America was founded on dreams of the unknown.” The conflating of the individual emotions with the landscape of the American West and likening the movement of white cowboys to an apocalypse indicates that the song fits into the genre of the Acid Western. The term was originally coined as a film description by the critic Pauline Kael and subsequently expanded upon by fellow critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, especially in his theorizing about the 1995 film Dead Man. In his review, Rosenbaum sees Acid Westerns as subverting the traditional film Westerns because they “conjure up a crazed version of autodestructive white America at its most solipsistic, hankering after its own lost origins.” Furthermore, Rosenbaum says that Acid Westerns present:
“a chilling, savage frontier poetry to justify its hallucinated agenda — a view at once clear-eyed and visionary, exalted and laconic, moral and unsentimental, witty and beautiful, frightening and placid.”
Previous posts on Recliner Notes explore how Acid Westerns work as a musical genre in addition to film, especially the songs “Isis,” “Romance in Durango,” and “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” by Bob Dylan. “Drover” shares thematic elements with those songs, especially the apocalyptic vision that Callahan sees for both the solitary cowboy and the American West at large.
The power of the apocalyptic forces in “Drover” can be seen in the next verse as Callahan sings, “I drove them by the crops and thought the crops were lost.” The cattle/narrator’s emotions are strong enough to wipe out all plantings without even coming into contact with them. Moreover, Callahan finishes the verse by singing, “And I set my watch against the city clock / It was way off.” The narrator’s attempts to return to society are rejected as he is unable to perform a simple function as re-setting his clock. Both community and technology itself are spurning him as he must return alone to the wilderness.
Callahan and the band move to the chorus which shifts momentarily from a minor to major chord. He sings:
One thing about this wild, wild country
It takes a strong, strong.. it breaks a strong, strong mind
Yea, one thing about this wild, wild country
It takes a strong, strong.. it breaks a strong, strong mind
And anything less, anything less
Makes me feel like I’m wasting my time.
Callahan further connects the personal with the public with these lines. The “wild, wild country” of America has the capacity to both gather in and accept someone with a “strong, strong mind” while, at the same time, also has the power to break that same strong, strong mind. The narrator wouldn’t have it any other way. The potential of America needs to be able to do both or else this solitary cowboy figure would feel as if he is “wasting [his] time.”
The musical accompaniment throughout “Drover” is both expert and responsive to Callahan’s lyrical tone, hitting the correct shading for the song. For example, throughout the up-tempo song, the electric guitar played by Matt Kinsey shifts from the noir-ish, spaghetti western fills to doom-laden distortion that trails off into the distance as if can be heard from atop a plateau. In the chorus, Gordon Butler’s fiddle enters and he is both challenging and encouraging Callahan’s words. As Callahan said in that same interview The Rumpus, the inclusion of a fiddle on the album was a specific choice based on his deep-seeded memories:
“I remember as a small child thinking that the fiddle in bluegrass music was a baby crying and singing. So I liked it. I thought they just brought their baby on stage with them. Bluegrass was what I first saw as a three-dimensional music—the skeleton and the organs and the skin and face. That is the first thing I remember about music, that bluegrass is like a body with joints that move and smiles, stretches, etc.”
Though not performing the same style of music, the band playing on “Drover” has the same ability to maneuver like how Callahan envisioned a bluegrass band, adjusting their sound as appropriate to Callahan’s lyrics, straight down to the baby-like fiddle. After the chorus, Callahan moves to the next verse:
But the pain and frustration is not mine
It belongs to the cattle through the valley.
Here, the narrator tries to sever any connection between his emotions and the cattle that he is driving, but it’s too late to fall back from that position. Besides, the rest of the verse betrays the narrator’s wishes:
And when my cattle turns on me, I was knocked back flat
I was knocked out cold for one clack of the train track
Then out rose a colossal hand buried, buried in sand.
I rose like a drover, for I am in the end, a drover, a drover by trade
When my cattle turns on me, I am a drover, double fold
My cattle bears it all the way for me and everyone.
The narrator accepts his place as a drover, allowing his connection to the cattle to remain intact. The land itself jolts him to this recognition as seen by the “colossal hand” that rises out after being “buried in sand.” The country makes the drover see that he must take on the burden “for me and everyone.” With this acceptance, Callahan sings the chorus once more. The drover knows he needs to have a “strong mind” in order to survive in this hard and “wild country.” As Callahan sings “wasting my time,” the song ends abruptly as if the narrator is left hanging. The strange conclusion to “Drover” makes the next song on Apocalypse feel like a continuation:
The recording of “Baby’s Breath” starts with the sound of a sharp intake of breath, presumably by Callahan, punning on the title of the song. Callahan opens the song by singing:
There grows a weed, looks like a flower
Looks like baby’s breath on a mirror.
Callahan plays a haunting, repetitive, and, at times, droning figure on the acoustic guitar. He’s joined by what sounds like a harmonica that references the countless times a harmonica is heard on the soundtrack of a Western. The eerie feeling of the music is matched by the lyrics as Callahan drops foreboding hints, including a wedding that is simply recognized as “The sacrifice was made.” From these opening lines, the connections between “Drover” and “Baby’s Breath” are strong with Acid Western themes conspicuous in both. It’s safe to assume that the two songs are in fact a song cycle featuring the same narrator. In a typical Western, a wedding would be the end of the movie with the cowboy retiring from cattle drives and settling down with his lovely bride in a beautiful new home. In an Acid Western such as “Baby’s Breath,” the wedding comes at the beginning of the song. It’s viewed as a sacrifice by the narrator. He has surrendered to domesticity, giving up his solitary life that is connected to the landscape as in “Drover.” Callahan confirms this reading of the song in a 2011 interview with The Guardian, saying:
“‘Baby’s Breath’ is about what happens when you finally choose where you’re going to settle down and get your own plot of land.”
This represents the fabled closing of the American West. The great cattle drives are over as the prairie has been fenced in. The Acid Western twist of “Baby’s Breath” is the depiction of the settlers’ lives after the closing and the subsequent consequences as a result of clearing the land of the Natives who lived there long before them. Going back to the opening line of “Drover,” what happens after “the real people” have been driven away and are now gone?
Callahan continues: “The roots gripped soft like a living grave.” Already, the idea of settling down in this new place feels deadly. A weed is mistaken for a flower. This is not the actual flower referred to as baby’s breath, but a flower that looks like the breath from a baby when held up to a mirror. This is an action that is only performed to see if a baby is still alive. The sharp intake of breath by Callahan at the beginning of the song actually represents the sound of the song’s narrator holding his own breath waiting for the results of the mirror test. The foreshadowing of doom is certainly getting hard to miss. The song continues with Callahan singing,
Oh young girl at the wedding
Baby’s breath in her hair
A crowning lace above her face
That will last a day before it turns to hay.
In this instance, the actual flower baby’s breath is present in the song as it is being used as part of the wildflowers gathered to make a headpiece for a bride. A wedding day is a joyous one as represented by the flower in the bride’s hair, but Callahan undercuts that feeling by noting that flowers eventually wither and “turn to hay.” He is saying that joy, like the life span of flowers, is short-lived. It’s no accident that the baby’s breath becomes hay as its fate is to be consumed by the cattle, who are also closed in on the once open prairie.
Like the narrator in “Drover,” the husband in “Baby’s Breath” is indelibly tied to the country in which he has settled:
And good plans are made by hand
I’d cut a clearing in the land
And for a little bed
For her to cry comfortable in.
He works the land in order to create a home for his young family in a way to seek comfort, but it does nothing to soothe the pervading crying of a young child. Callahan continues:
And each day I looked out on the lawn
And I wondered what all was gone
Until I saw it was lucky old me
How could I run without losing anything?
How could I run without becoming lean?
It was agreed, it was agreed
It was me tearing out the baby’s breath.
Callahan extends the “th” sound at the end of the word “breath,” harkening back to the intake of breath at the beginning of the song. The harmonica is blaring in the background while Kinsey summons loud, psychedelic sounds from his electric guitar. The music reaches an apex as in the soundtrack of an Acid Western when the main character comes to a crossroads. At this point, the narrator of “Baby’s Breath” has reached a crux when he must make a decision. He knows he cannot abandon his family because he will lose their love forever. He gazes “out on the lawn” and recognizes that it is his responsibility, the land and his family, all tied together. There’s nothing to do but destroy and rip “out the baby’s breath.” Does he refer to the flower or to the sickly baby itself? It’s immediately unclear, but the narrator made reference earlier in the song to a “sacrifice.” The repercussions are devastating to consider. Callahan answers the question directly:
Oh I am a helpless man, so help me
I’m on my knees gardening
It was not a weed, it was a flower
My baby’s gone, oh where has my baby gone?
And she was not a weed, she was a flower.
Here’s the acknowledgement of loss by the narrator, recognizing that “she was not a weed, she was a flower,” and so he’s back to clearing the land once again, but this time, he is on his knees. Gardening for him is a form of prayer and repentance, asking for forgiveness for the original sin of the founding of America. Callahan ends the song by singing, “And now I know you must reap what you sow, or sing.” He repeats it for emphasis. Callahan provided one more comment on “Baby’s Breath” to The Rumpus, saying that it’s about,
“Always looking for an alternate ending to memory. Or an alternate to memory’s machinations as we know them. That is what this song is about. It’s kind of a series of alternate endings.”
Maybe Callahan is hinting that the baby doesn’t literally die, but that it’s a projection on the part of the narrator. He knows the threat hanging over them and that sowing resultings in reaping in some way. The last words uttered by Callahan are “or sing“ which could be the final alternate ending as the narrator understands that the only thing left to do is singing the words of the song.
With this ending, “Drover” and “Baby’s Breath” come back together. The narrator has broken apart, whether as a result of the sacrifice in the form of a baby’s death (rhymes with “baby’s breath”) or if this is all imagined and only in his mind. The “wild wild country” identified in “Drover” requires a strong mind. Without this kind of stamina, the country will break you and it’s obvious in “Baby’s Breath” that it has completely crushed the narrator. Both songs address classic myths of white America: the great cattle drives, the clearing of the land for settlements, and the closing of the West. The Acid Western version of these legends as told by “Drover” and “Baby’s Breath” results in a curse that requires sacrifices as a consequence of the decimation of the Native people. The costs of living on stolen land are now all too clear. Payment is required and it leaves a nervous, guilt-ridden, and damaged people in its wake.
Image: Mess scene on round up, between 1887 and 1892, John C. H. Grabill, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
2 thoughts on “Drover”