Vincent Neil Emerson Is an Indigenous Voice to Hear in Country Music

by NEW YORK DIGITAL NEWS


Every April growing up in East Texas, Vincent Neil Emerson and his family traveled to Louisiana for their tribe’s annual powwow. For that one weekend of the year, the future singer-songwriter was immersed in the culture of his mother’s people, the Choctaw-Apache. He was dazzled by the spectacle of the dances, the drums and song, which were performed, at times, in traditional regalia, jewelry, and beadwork.

Those memories were seared into his mind.

“It’s always been a huge part of my life. It’s how I was raised,” Emerson, now 31, says of his Native ancestry, over a Zoom call from a tour stop in Nashville. Back home as a kid living on his grandfather’s property, he was surrounded by other members of his extended family — aunts, uncles, and cousins. But until recently, that heritage rarely came through in his music. “As I’ve gotten older,” he reckons, “it’s mattered to me more.”

On his new album, The Golden Crystal Kingdom, produced by Shooter Jennings, Emerson leans into his past more than ever before, with a tougher, harder rocking edge that adds an air of daring and mystery to his tales of spiritual displacement. They never feel grander than on the closing track, “Little Wolf’s Invincible Yellow Medicine Paint,” a swirling song about going to war with white settlers that was inspired by a comic book his wife brought home.

It’s the hallmark of an artist who, three albums in, knows well who he is. The timing’s no accident.

“Anytime you take someone out of their tribe and raise them in a different area, there’s always going to be that level of separation,” says Emerson, who sports a Mack trucker hat and a tattoo of bright red feathers on his forearm. “But as an adult, I’ve been real fortunate to meet a lot of indigenous musicians, artists, directors, filmmakers, and really form a community.”

Emerson only began to open up that part of his life on his self-titled album in 2021, and specifically on a track called “The Ballad of the Choctaw-Apache.” The song recounts the hardships of his mother’s family, who were forced to relocate by the U.S. government to make way for the construction of the Toledo Bend Reservoir in Louisiana in the early Sixties. He based it partially on his grandmother’s personal recollections.

“I felt like it was an important story to tell. It pissed some people off because, really, I just tried to tell the truth,” says Emerson, who was met with racist and body-shaming comments online after its release. “I wanted to shine a light on something that’s been swept under the rug for a lot of people in that area.”

At the same time, Emerson began to hear from other indigenous artists around the country. When his later cover of Leon Russell’s “Manhattan Island Serenade” was used on the FX series Reservation Dogs, he formed a friendship with the show’s creator Sterlin Harjo. In total, three of Emerson’s songs were used for the soundtrack. The dramatic music video for “Little Wolf’s Invincible Yellow Medicine Paint,” shot near the Wind River reservation in Wyoming, also features Native bareback riding champion Sharmaine Weed.

As someone who never had a reservation to go back to himself, Emerson’s come to feel included in unforeseen ways. “In white communities and in larger cities, people don’t really see Native people. They don’t see indigenous people,” he says. “It’s kind of like, they see them in movies and TV and [have] this idea of what an indigenous person is supposed to look like. So, it’s weird.”

Writing “The Ballad of the Choctaw-Apache” did more than prompt Emerson to access his family history; it compelled him to go deeper in his writing and storytelling, and to speak out against injustices that he bore witness to. He says now that he “hates” his first album, Fried Chicken and Evil Women, a collection of lighthearted honky-tonk songs that relied more on a punchline than a gut punch.

The second record showcased Emerson’s affinity for Texas songwriters like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Steve Earle, but it’s the amped-up guitars of The Golden Crystal Kingdom that really transmutes those influences into his own voice. That’s brought viscerally into focus by “The Man From Uvalde,” a seething dirge about the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in May 2022. “I have a son, I’ve got a 3-year-old boy, and [at the time] we lived real close to where that happened, in San Antonio,” Emerson recalls. “And it scared the shit out of me.”

On “The Man From Uvalde,” the singer’s fury is channeled through a strangled one-note guitar solo, à la Neil Young. It’s another level of anger altogether from “The Ballad of the Choctaw Apache.” Emerson, who asked for advice on the song from Steve Earle, says he didn’t set out to write a topical piece. “If it’s something that comes up and I feel like I need to write about it, then I will,” he says.

Fatherhood is also a new experience for Emerson. His son was born shortly after recording wrapped on Vincent Neil Emerson in 2020. “It’s been tough, man, especially touring so much,” he admits. “It was nice to be home so much with him during the quarantine times. Now, you know, this is my main way to support my family, so I have to do this, and it’s really hard.”

Emerson is keenly aware of taking care of his mental health: He lost his own father to suicide when he was 9 years old. “I still have problems with it. The things that happen to you in life, they don’t just go away. That trauma is always going to be there,” he says. Though he dealt with depression and behavioral issues as a teenager, he went largely untreated for a number of years. (“It wasn’t really something that we talked about. I grew up in the country,” he says.) Songwriting, however, has become his salve. “It’s been a really good form of therapy, a cathartic kind of thing when I get my feelings out, and that’s so important to me. That’s kind of how I cope.”

On the last album, Emerson wrote about his father’s death through “Learnin’ to Drown,” a song that fans frequently speak to him about. “It’s tough just to revisit that at every show,” he says, “so I don’t [always play it].”

The memories on The Golden Crystal Kingdom are more uplifting, particularly the opener, “Time of the Rambler,” and the title track, both of which were inspired by his early days gigging around Fort Worth, Texas, where he spent most of his twenties. For about three months when he was 21, Emerson was homeless, living out of his car and busking. “And then I sold the car to make some demos,” he recalls, with a laugh. On one occasion, he remembers being spat on by the husband of a woman who tried dancing onstage and making song requests.

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“It’s basically my middle finger to all those really bad shows I played,” he says of “The Golden Crystal Kingdom,” in particular.

He’s come a long way since. That much hit home when he wrote “Time of the Rambler” one night in the basement of Jennings’ hillside studio in Los Angeles. “I was looking out the window and looking at the freeway and all these houses in the Hollywood Hills,” Emerson says, his eyes lighting up as though he’s still there at this very moment. “And I don’t know why, but it just reminded me: ‘Damn, this is it. I can’t believe I’m here doing this right now.’”



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