Salt of the Earth
Chris Bathgate made one of the best records of the year. So why's he fighting for relevance?
Published: May 11, 2011
A couple weeks ago, a writer and a photographer were on the highway to Hell — Michigan Route 23 — driving away from Ypsilanti in a car that carried cameras, guitars, and bourbon. All for later. First, they had a record to listen to and some miles to cover. They were on their way to meet a guy who was already in Hell — pop. 266 — drinking a beer.
The car rolled toward a falling sun. The photog plugged the destination into his phone's GPS and the writer popped in Salt Year, Chris Bathgate's latest CD. They talked about the music. The writer considered it "a carefully crafted narrative." The photog responded that "it isn't just bad luck and heartbreak, though you will might hear it that way."
They agreed. Bathgate showed "poetic restraint," the writer thought. Something practiced. Sorrowful.
Silence swept over the car. Salt Year is a tough record to talk over.
The car passed packs of pickup trucks.
Rattling the speakers, Bathgate called out to a woman named Eliza and sang himself into some heartbroken nightmare.
The photog refreshed the GPS and broke the silence. "The record's kind of like a map, right?" he said staring at his phone, waiting for the blue dot to get back on track. "It takes you somewhere."
"But only a sympathetic listener can read that map," the writer added. "But, yeah, through the thickets of a dead swamp forest. Serene. Perilous."
He called it a "soundtrack for insoluble turmoil."
Somewhere far above in orbit, a satellite homed in on the car and the route was made clear again.
Photog goes a ways back with Bathgate. But the writer, from Detroit, had only met him a handful of times.
"I swear it's easier to get a read on the guy through his music than in person," photog said.
"He always sounds like he could use a drink," the writer said and canceled the cruise control and slowed the car as he passed Portage Lake on North Territorial road. He said, "Bathgate's doing better these days. He's got a big spring ahead of him. Did he tell you about Cyprus? Shakespeare? No? I'll let him tell you. But I'm sure he won't mind a couple beers. Wait until you see this bar."
The writer wondered aloud about the title of Bathgate's record, and what to make of Eliza, who more or less haunts the record.
"It's interesting," the photog started, "because we already heard the song 'Salt Year' on Bathgate's 2008 EP — Wait, Skeleton."
The redux saw a change in gravity. "Like, maybe Chris had no idea this sad bastard lullaby was a premonition," the photog said.
He told the writer how, just as Bathgate had begun to experience some career highs, he was met with a couple years of serial lows. Fractured relationships. And not just romantic ones. Financial woes. "Starving artist stuff," he said.
It was a beautiful day in Hell. The record had begun to repeat by the time the car pulled up to the Dam Site Inn, a rural dive frequented by bikers, cottage folk, tea partiers (they sell merch at the bar) and, evidently, a prolific and semi-reclusive folk singer who basks in the irony the bar affords.
The sun was on the horizon, but the bar was already dark and dank. Kitschy devil decorations were strewn about. NASCAR was on.
Not that one could tell, but it was happy hour.
A few barmaids mingled with a line cook. Save for the one guy sitting alone in a booth wearing work clothes all covered in paint and grime, the place was empty.
The writer and the photog watched him tilt a can back. When his hand came down they could see his face. He looked worn out, and was. But he forced a smile and said something that made the waitress feel pretty as she approached.
It was Bathgate.
He rose from his seat to greet his guests. A hug for the photographer and a sturdy shake for the writer. A couple cold ones were already on the way over. Bathgate is a gentleman like that.
The first thing the writer jotted in his notepad was "Classic charm, like his music."
Tall and broad shouldered, tired but with good posture, Bathgate had a sort of timeless look. British somehow. But American blue-collar. You wouldn't have guessed it by the sight of him that day, but he's an aesthete, studied in the classics, American lit, poetry and art too.
Three cans were raised.
The writer soon learned that Bathgate had always been a creative but diligent type of guy. Ever since he was a kid. He also confirmed something the photog had said in the car, that Bathgate once had purple hair, the Deftones filled his tape deck and, he once played in a metal band.
The photog studied Bathgate for a moment and said he could see his hardcore streak in the "intensity" he brings to folk music. Even in the booth, Bathgate's posture and brow were serious, and the writer noted this in his pad, circling the words "work ethic" and "furrowed."
By 2001, Bathgate had chilled out a bit and started to pursue a serious solo music project.
He said he was attending a small arts college when his parents moved from Illinois to Dexter in Washtenaw County. They invited him to check out Ann Arbor, take a tour of the University of Michigan. Maybe he'd consider transferring?
"It only took one visit," Bathgate said.
"What did it?" the writer asked.
"That first visit, I happened into the Ark. It was open-mic night," Bathgate said. "I mean, I dug U-M, and Ann Arbor was so much cooler than where I was, but the Ark show sealed it immediately."
Bathgate studied art and literature at the University of Michigan, but continued to record solo. There was a three-man old-timey band called the Ambitious Brothers, followed by a short-lived experimental band, Descent of the Holy Ghost Church, which featured, among other area musicians, the very talented Matt Jones.
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