Crooked Time with Riddy Arman

With a new set of shows this summer, Riddy Arman is enjoying a return to playing music in front of audiences again. Well, audiences beyond her partner and newborn son.

Now that she’s on the road again, it feels like she’s picking up right where she left off–on an extended run of momentum ignited by her powerful debut album. Arman’s 2021 self-titled collection contains one gut-wrenching gem after another, her voice like a cello, narrating weary, leathery, patient stories drawn from a sparse Western landscape.

After listening to the mesmerizing record several times, I noticed that on some verses, Arman’s vocals come in a beat late. It’s subtle, but halting, like a horse switching its lead, and I thought it contributed to the deliberate pace — and tone — of her songs. When I got to ask her about it, she laughed and said, “yeah, some people I make music with tease me about my crooked time.”

I wasn’t immediately familiar with the phrase “crooked time,” which describes extra or missing notes in verses or measures, deviations from the expected beat pattern. Crooked time is typically associated with old-time North American or Irish music, bluegrass or anything with a fiddle.

Rooted in traditions, in other words, but a deviation from the expected. There may be no better way to describe Riddy Arman. It’s not merely her playful vocal stylings. Her songs are grounded in familiar soundscapes — Western, folk, original country — and are told through the knowing voice of a working ranch hand.  Yet, as a woman making music that reasons with horse manure, or pushing pairs of cows up a draw, she is the exception not the rule.

“When you see someone onstage in Wranglers, a western shirt, and a hat that has real dust on it, you’re not usually looking at a woman,” says Connie Collingsworth, Co-Founder of LaHonda Records, the label Riddy calls home.

For the listener, it makes for a crooked experience where a familiar sound is told through a new and unexpected perspective. Consider the song, “Barbed Wire,” which iterates on the lonesome cowboy trope. Arman’s man is separated from his lover, and the only relief from his pain is fencing, the most tedious, monotonous and despised work on a ranch.  We don’t know what’s keeping the lovers apart, but you get the sense it’s his pride:

“There’s one thing he wants and can’t seem to find/ So he sits atop his horse as his dog trails beside/ Seeking freedom from his mind under sunny desert skies/ The wind will dry his tears that fall as if he’s never cried,” Arman sings. In that interpretation, the famed cowboy stubbornness and stoicism are cautionary tale rather than celebration.

While women have long found success in country music, the specific trail Arman has traveled had not been blazed yet. She knew of no female role model who wrote old-time folk and country songs in between shifts on the ranch. But her confidence to even try was instilled in those very settings. “Women working in ag, working in the West, they’re held in as high regard as men if they can do the work,” Arman told me. She knew she could do the work – whether it was on a ranch or writing her own music.

Arman  met Colter Wall after his show in New Orleans, along with his manager and the other co-founder of LaHonda Records, Travis Blankenship. A short time later, after Collingsworth and Blankenship listened to her songs and offered Arman a spot on the label. In addition to her music, the two were drawn to her playfulness and self-possession — a combination of qualities they figured, and hoped, would bring surprises.

My favorite surprise on her album is a simple lyrical one. The opening track, “Spirits, Angels, or Lies” is a beautiful telling of her father’s passing, and an invitation to consider what might happen at death.  But in the final line of the chorus, and song, Arman strays from the story of her dad, and what happens in the final moments of one’s life, and zooms out to say, “We never know what someone sees with their own eyes.” The line lands as a timely plea from a guarded, broken world crying out for empathy, and an understanding of other people’s perspectives.

It was songwriting like that which drew the attention of Los Angeles-based filmmaker O’Reilly.  “I listened to two verses of ‘Spirits, Angels, Or Lies’ and I called out to my wife to come listen. Anyone who hears the first lines of a Riddy song knows she’s legit,” he says.

O’Reilly was so moved by Arman’s music that he called LaHonda Records and asked if he could make a film and music video — on his own dime. Collingsworth recalls the phone call and still shakes her head about their good fortune. “We’re just so lucky to have people like Keenan who want to support our artists,” she says. O’Reilly and a crew spent five days with Arman in western Montana where she lives and does ranch work. He was impressed with what he called her “raw humanity,” and his reverence for her comes across in the beautiful film he and LaHonda jointly released in July of 2022.

“I made the film and the video for ‘Both of My Hands’ because I want to look back in 40 years and be proud that I played a role in supporting music that stood the test of time,” he says, alluding to not only Riddy but the cohort of talented artists making traditional folk and country music right now, and who are ushering in a surging revival.

When Arman announced that she and her fiancé are expecting a baby and canceled some of her upcoming shows, she promised her fans that she would be “here in Montana, writing y’all a new album.”

The reference to a new record suddenly reminded that she just has the one out so far. Given the richness of the songs on her first album, and her old-soul presence, it feels like more. But it was also a joyful reminder that Riddy Arman is just getting started.

This article originally appeared on on July 19, 2022. It has been modified slightly.

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