That’s an excerpt I like from “Whitman in 1863,” a song on local folk musician Brady Earnhart’s new album, Manalapan. In a way, it’s only fitting that the enterprise contains a tribute to America’s bard. Earnhart wrote his dissertation on the man many consider the country’s first original poet, and his songs, while the product of an original voice, evidence Whitman-esque powers of observation, particularly with regard to nature and location. For years before Earnhart ever began recording songs, he wrote, studied and published poetry.
There is another similarity between the two: Earnhart is gay. Does that matter? Should you think of him as a gay songwriter? Well, that depends on what you mean.
“When I hear a song that’s self-consciously dedicated to some cause, even one I agree with, my heart tends to clam up: The singer isn’t singing to me anymore. I’m just convert fodder,” he says. “On the other hand, if you forge a personal connection with the audience, you can’t help but be political on some local level, because you’re reminding people that they’re powerful and human, maybe in ways they hadn’t realized before.
“What good songs do is give us maps to places we need to know but never quite knew about. They throw flour on the invisible man.
“I don’t sit down to write about an issue. If I did that I would feel manipulative and dirty,” Earnhart says. “I write about what I see as the truth.”
If you have even a passing interest in Charlottesville’s folk music scene, chances are Earnhart’s name is familiar. He has been performing in Charlottesville for years, since coming to town in 1992 to start his graduate studies (he now lives in Harrisonburg, where he teaches creative writing at James Madison University), and many of the area’s better-known artists are friends with him, or have worked with him, or both.
Indeed, Earnhart’s contributions to music in Charlottesville are legion. The “King of My Living Room” 2002 concert series was inspired by a party Earnhart threw for Mardi Gras at which a group of local songwriters stayed up late playing and singing. Eventually they made a pact to do the same thing as a concert (the title is taken from Earnhart’s song of the same name, on his album After You). Earnhart wrote the string arrangements for The Naked Puritan Philarmonic’s Live Arts album. Nickeltown, the duo of Jeff Romano and Browning Porter, has covered some of his songs. The list goes on.
“I’ve known Brady to be a gregarious catalyst for the music scene here in Charlottesville,” says Romano, who, with Earnhart, co-produced Manalapan. “I doubt we’d be as cohesive a group if it weren’t for Brady and his parties.”
Charlottesville-based folk singer Paul Curreri’s first experience with local musicians was through his participation in the King of My Living Room series, after moving to town last year. He recalls Earnhart’s welcome fondly.
“I don’t know, maybe it’s the teacher in Brady, his just being supportive and kind to younger writers or musicians, but I specifically remember Brady earnestly thanking me, giving me a copy of After You and saying, ‘Welcome to Charlottesville, Paul. I look forward to seeing you around,’” Curreri says.
Earnhart’s songs are, in one sense, recognizable folk music: Most numbers feature his deep, slightly mournful voice (all the more memorable for its acknowledged imperfections) and skillful guitar arrangements of varying complexity. But it’s folk music with a twist as the electric guitar, cello, saxophone and French horn all make appearances in Manalapan.
Lyrically, however, enough simply cannot be said. Earnhart has a knack for evoking location (“The fleas never die in Delray/and the patio peppers with mold”), whimsy (“If this had been a hit song/I’d have paid off this guitar/but I’d lose my excuse to sing off-key”) and, of course, unrequited love (“I’ve prayed all my life to change/to anything I can for you/but if you loved me I would even/be this thing I am for you”).
Earnhart speaks from the point of view of other characters, often literary or artistic figures, like Whitman or Stephen Crane, who have influenced or interested him. “I think he has the history of literature under his belt. After all, he holds a Ph.D. in American Lit,” Romano says.
“He sometimes writes from a long-ago perspective that can only be mastered by being touched by the writers of our past.”
He does not always, or even often, overtly address his sexuality, but when he does he shows insight and humor. In “Honey Don’t Think Your Mama Don’t Know,” one of Manalapan’s catchier numbers, Earnhart sings “it wasn’t just a slacker fad to keep/a Playgirl underneath the mattress pad/maybe you can fool your dad/but don’t think she don’t know.”
To wit, sometimes being gay is the subject of Earnhart’s music. More often, it isn’t—or doesn’t have to be. As music writer Keith Morris wrote in his favorable review of Manalapan, published in this newspaper, “Fact is, there is a paucity of literate music out there, and Earnhart’s songs may well be the most subtly poetic, skillfully crafted, and all-inclusively human stuff I’ve heard in years.”
Romano puts it another way: “Many of his love songs transcend sexual preference, you could easily change the pronouns and have a beautiful love song for any alien in the universe.”
For Curreri, “Brady’s sexuality generally plays no more or less a role than yours does in writing this article, or certainly, than mine does in songs: Both enormous and none.”
Earnhart was born in Florida, a place he still visits and that is featured prominently in many of his songs (Manalapan is a Florida town where Earnhart snorkels). Earnhart, who was not taken with sports, became interested in music as a “social galvanizer,” a “way to get to people,” he says. He vividly remembers a skiing trip when he was 16 in which a group of youngsters ended up trading songs in a room.
“I was an eccentric kid, and it just seemed magic to me what a guitar could do,” he says.
Still, for quite a long time, music was not the first priority. During college, Earnhart, who attended William and Mary, spent most of his time on creative writing, afterward earning an M.F.A. degree in poetry from the University of Iowa’s prestigious program.
It was only after a six-year relationship came to a close, that Earnhart, living in upstate New York at the time, began to take composition and playing more seriously.
“It started to seem very lonely to write poems,” he says. In person, the 46-year-old Earnhart is handsome and self-possessed. He looks a bit like a classy character actor who you know you like, but whose name you struggle with.
“It’s just a very solitary business,” he says. “I wanted to write the kind of thing that would bring me in contact with other people.”
His attitude toward songwriting is sober. “To me, music is a serious thing,” he says. “Even when it’s funny, it should have a serious side to it.”
He is not interested in disposable pop, or clichés of any sort. “The best symbol is the accurately drawn, concrete object,” he says. Hence, Manalapan is grounded in everyday detail but also serves as a metaphor for the imagination and how it can become “a sanctuary, or a friend.”
For Earnhart, poetry and songwriting are distinct tasks, each with its own objective. A songwriter must “think a lot about setting, motivation, like a dramatist,” while “poets don’t have to think so much,” he says. “A poem is more allowed to be just a stray thought.”
When it comes to forming a connection with the audience, however, studying poetry has helped. “Poetry is all about finding places where the intangible and the tangible intersect. That’s how it creates experiences, instead of just talking about them. It brings them within reach of the listener’s sensual imagination,” Earnhart says. “Big abstractions tend to fail. They’re indigestible.”
He describes songwriting as similar to “cleaning house”: You can start with anything—a chorus, a scrap of music—and then build out from that. The most important thing is to “figure out who it is that is singing the song, to get a sense of the character.” Then, Earnhart says, you can figure out how smart they are, what language they might use, what rhymes are appropriate, etc.
And what about the gay question? Earnhart is wry about the effect of that word. One the one hand, he resists labeling. On the other, he knows it is inevitable and recognizes the potential for benefit.
“It’s probably a good thing for me right now, because singer-songwriters are multiplying like rabbits, and there’s less and less you can do to distinguish yourself from the pack,” he says.
Earnhart expresses skepticism that many gay men would readily take to his music, even were they exposed to it.
“All marginalized groups are extremely conservative. A lot of young gay men are so hungry for identity, that sadly they’ll snap up a stereotype because it’s the most readily available identity there it is,” he says.
For these reasons, Earnhart said, a young gay man may be more comfortable listening to dance music and hanging up Judy Garland posters than listening to another gay man singing seriously about passion in a personal way. That “might seem a little too novel to be comfortable.
“An ironic attitude is a really safe attitude to adopt,” he says. “You’re much less vulnerable. But to me, if a song doesn’t have vulnerability, it’s probably not going to be very important to me.
Earnhart would like to reach a larger audience, but downplays the possibility of far-reaching fame. “I’m a passionate fan of other singer-songwriters,” he says. “I’m a devoted listener. And I make music that’s not out there yet that I wish were out there.
“Why would a solitary and sort of ‘arty’ singer-songwriter get famous?” he continues, rhetorically. “Maybe if I save somebody in a car wreck, or my brother is elected president.”
It’s a dilemma others have noted.
“On one hand, he seems to have a built-in audience that is just waiting for someone like him to come along,” Morris says. “And he does that niche wonderfully, about as artistically and directly as anybody I’ve heard. So on one hand, he has got this built-in audience, but on the other, maybe the danger is that he’s just too good. That his music is too subtle, it’s too intelligent.
“And people, whatever their sexuality, are just not that intelligent. The mass audience might not be smart enough to get Brady.”
Nevertheless, Earnhart doesn’t seem particularly troubled about occupying a smaller space, aware as he is that fame of any sort perhaps more often than not involves compromise. And the alternative has its own rewards.
In King of My Living Room, Earnhart sings, “I don’t mind three-dollar wine/and I guess I won’t too soon/won’t be a kept monkey/on TV country/I’ll be the king of my living room.” And later in the song: “Say it’s got something for everyone/then I know it’s got nothing for me.”
Truth be told, to listen to Earnhart for any length of time, whether in person, on a record, or at a tiny show at the Live Arts LAB space, is to realize that any discussion about fame, sexuality or politics ultimately falls just a little shy of the point.
“I guess songwriting makes my own life seem more real to me,” he says. “It makes me feel like my ideas and emotions are valid.”