Photo: Thomas Crabtree
The first time I met Vincent Neil Emerson, at the Basement East in Nashville back in early 2022, it was through Connie Collingsworth, co-founder of La Honda Records, the label that had released Vincent’s first two albums. I was a fan of Emerson’s music and had come to Nashville from California in part to see him perform. Connie introduced me as, “our friend who works for the Grammys.” Vincent’s cherubic face lit up as we shook hands. He smiled at me brightly, pointed at Collingsworth, and said, “Well, they’ve got an artist who deserves a Grammy by the name of Colter Wall!”
At that point I had only been working at the Recording Academy a few months. It was the first time I had encountered an artist who, upon learning I worked there, immediately brought up the name of some other artist. Almost two years later, I’m still waiting for the second person to do it.
For Emerson, it was not an anomalous remark. In all my interactions with him since, he’s shown himself to be humble, gracious, and unafraid to acknowledge the talents of his peers or hide the fact that he roots for their success. “Bella White has a song called ‘Gutted,’” he told me another time we spoke. “Man, it guts me every time I listen it.” He called Logan Ledger “one of the best singers and songwriters I’ve ever met.” When I interviewed him for this article, he cited Wall and Charley Crockett as two of his most important influences. He even covers Crockett’s “Time of the Cottonwood Trees” on his most recent album, Golden Crystal Kingdom, released earlier this month, again on La Honda but this time in partnership with RCA Records, and produced by Shooter Jennings.
And Emerson’s openness about his affection for his fellow artists is by no means an exception to his character. Indeed, it is central to who he is, another instance of his raw honesty, an expression of his instinct, like the gamblers he writes about, to lay his cards on the table. You don’t need to interview Vincent Neil Emerson to understand this about him. It’s right there in the music.
The sincerity of Golden Crystal Kingdom begins with the fact that it refuses to be limited to any single genre. There are stripped down country ballads, western stylings, and, in a departure from his first two albums, hard charging rock n’ roll songs.
“I just happened to be going down that path musically and in my songwriting,” Emerson said of the album’s rock vibe. “And man, it worked out because Shooter loves rock n’ roll. He understands it, and it all intersected perfectly.”
Besides his peers, he was listening to a range of music before and during the writing of the album. “I’ve always been a big Neil Yong fan,” Emerson said. “But I started diving into all his records with Crazy Horse, and went down the rabbit hole, and started listening to Stephen Stills, some David Crosby, and just a lot of old stuff where folk music meets rock n’ roll. It was an interesting time in music history, where these guys in Laurel Canyon were figuring out they could play folk songs on electric guitars. I was also listening to Link Wray and Buffy St. Marie. And I’m always listening to Dylan. In terms of musical influences on the record, just a big melting pot of things I’ve encountered.”
Emerson lays himself bare in other ways on the album too. During the time he was writing the songs for this record, he was falling in love and getting married. Vincent has spoken openly at his shows and in interviews about how “On the Banks of the Old Guadalupe” and “Clover on the Hillside” were written for his wife. When he sings lines like, “So I’ll dream about you only, when I close my eyes tonight//I’ll leave the things I’ve seen, and keep you in my mind,” you feel him pouring his heart onto the page. He told Grammy.com that it is hard to write a love song “and not feel like I’m sounding cheesy.” Only a true gambler would feel that way and still put two of them on the album.
But alongside Emerson’s full heart, the album is marked with pain and despair. Such sentiments, in fact, bookend the record like a vise. The opening song ends with Emerson lamenting sadly, “The game won’t ever change.” And the final song ends with him repeating the lyric “everything is dead” 12 times.
That opening song, “Time of the Rambler,” contemplates the vast space between the wealthy and everyone else in modern America, and was written while Emerson was recording the album in Los Angeles. “I was thinking back on my time living in my car,” he said. “I played music on the street. I stole cans of soup from the grocery store to get by. Shit was weird and hard. I was staying in Shooter’s house when we were making the record, and you can see the highway from his basement. I was looking at the cars drive by and just seeing that many nice cars drive down the road at once made me think of my Oldsmobile Cutlass Sierra. The juxtaposition of being in L.A. making a record with Shooter Jennings for RCA had me thinking, ‘I’m so far from where I started.’”
On “Man From Uvalde,” the anguished narrator wonders if his son survived the massacre. The tragic school shooting happened a short distance from where Emerson was living in South Texas. He writes from the perspective of someone with a young son himself, and speaks for every parent when he sings, “I don’t trust no talkin’ head, I don’t care if you’re blue or red//I just wanna keep my child from dying at his desk.”
He covers the tormented Buffy St. Marie song, “Cod’ine,” and throughout the record confronts being locked up, pending death, isolation, and feelings of being invisible to an uncaring society. When I asked him about all the torment on the record, the 31-year-old man who lost his father to suicide and his brother to a house fire when he was a boy, and who, in the last ten years has been through a divorce, suffered a pulmonary embolism and whose career as a music professional wobbled under the weight of a global pandemic, only said, “I’m trying to capture some realness. Sometimes life is tough and it’s hard, and shit is not easy.”
Perhaps the most glaring example of Emerson exposing himself for all the world is the final song, “Little Wolf’s Invincible Yellow Medicine Paint,” the story of a medicine man who motivated warriors going to battle against white men by convincing them the yellow paint he covered them in would make them immune to arrows, bullets, and any other weaponry. Emerson is a Choctaw-Apache Indian, and in the past few years, has embraced that part of his public identity.
“I’m so proud of my family and where we come from, proud to call myself an Indian, to be a Native American,” Emerson said. “There was a time in my life I didn’t talk about it very often. I was playing in a music scene that was mostly white people and I kind of kept it to myself. If I mentioned it, someone would say, ‘oh you look white, you’re not Native,’ or assumed I went on 23 and Me and discovered some distant connection. But my family’s from the tribe, my family grew up in that community. So I kept it to myself for a long time because I didn’t want to deal with people’s bullshit,” he said.
That began to change when he wrote a song called “The Ballad of the Choctaw-Apache” and placed it on his 2021 self-titled album. “Just maturing as a person and really learning about our story and all the things that happened to us, I just felt like I wanted to talk about it,” he explained. “And little did I know that indigenous representation in country music is so important. I’ve been hit with a big wall of love from so many indigenous communities and native people, and in a lot of ways I feel like I found my community.”
Filmmaker Sterlin Harjo, a member of the Seminole Nation and creator of the acclaimed television series Reservation Dogs, is part of that “wall of love” Emerson referenced. A fan of Vincent’s music, Harjo featured it on the show, and the two became close friends.
“I think he’s really talented. A really good musician, and singer too, great voice,” Harjo said. “A couple of years ago I heard ‘25 and Wasting Time’ and started listening to him then, and quickly got into everything else. I’m a big Leon Russell fan and he has a great Leon Russell cover, ‘Manhattan Island Serenade.’ There was something about the song. I couldn’t get it out of my head, as far as thinking about it going in this episode, where Willie Jack goes to visit her Auntie in jail. There’s something about that song, in the lyrics and music that fit for me tonally. I had the idea for that song before I even made that episode. I remember when we were shooting it, I was playing the song a lot on a little speaker in between takes.”
Emerson eventually would have three songs appear on Rez Dogs, one in each season. “Man that felt so good,” he said, remembering “Manhattan Island Serenade” getting on the show. “When I found out, I started tearing up a little bit because I loved the show and I respect Sterlin and that team so much. It was also the first TV show that I’d ever had a song in so it was monumental for me.”
Putting “Little Wolf’s Invincible Yellow Medicine Paint” on the new album was important to Emerson, and he was even able to have a music video made for it. It was directed by Mike Vanata of Western AF and stars Sharmaine Weed, a champion bareback Native American relay racer and focus of the 2021 documentary Pure Grit.
“I was honored as hell to be asked,” Vanata said of opportunity to direct the video. “Vincent is a special human. I thought the song had everything, including just high octane imagery. Vincent was very open to any ideas about it. I’d been seeing some Indian relay racing lately and I personally hadn’t seen any music videos featuring that.”
The story in the song—yellow-painted warriors heading into battle—is two centuries behind us. In Vanata’s video, which is more like a short film, we see the story of a contemporary bareback rider preparing for a race.
Emerson loved the contrast. “It’s crazy how you can take a song and find so many different meanings within it. With that imagery behind it, it took on a whole new meaning for me. I’m so glad we did that, because it tied everything together and brought it back to modern times,” he said.
The song, for me at least, carries yet another meaning. In the modern times the video takes us, the times which we have no choice but to live in, the times when arrows, bullets and battlefield weaponry are not the primary threats to our well-being, but the times when threats still abound, we must either summon a power that resides within us—or dress ourselves up in something—capable of providing some measure of immunity against the anger and cynicism and fear and mistrust and despair aimed at us day in and day out.
Call all the defenses invincible yellow medicine paint. Why not? Survival armor by any other name would shine as bright. In these times, the smart money is on closing ourselves off, to not risk being exposed to betrayal and scorn and disappointment. For Vincent Neil Emerson, someone who was born into tragedy and long-shot odds, it seems he’s instead chosen openness, hard honesty, and the recognition that the only hand we can play is the one we’re dealt.