photo by Jonathan Egan
by Michael Todd
The stories of our grandparents filter down through the generations. Gradually, they change shape as all stories do, but the lesson they sometimes keep teaching is that some things never are resolved and some stories repeat themselves.
Max Holmquist writes under the name The Great American Desert, capturing pieces of broken folks in song. With his starkly recorded album Carson City, Holmquist sings of John and Ruth, the residents of White Clay, a salesman and others. On the album's first song released, premiered here, a husband and wife of the early 20th century are grappling with the consequences of gambling and an affair in "Carson City," told in the form of letters.
The record Carson City will be released through Yer Bird Records on June 26. As an aside and in interest of full transparency, some songs off Carson City might have been born in the Hear Nebraska Hostel as Holmquist stayed with our founders Andy and Angie Norman for some time.
Just after playing Lawrence High School's Room 125, Holmquist talked over the phone about the story of "Carson City," its production and the Nebraskan artists who support him. See The Great American Desert in concert tonight at Duffy's Tavern with Classes, Bears of Blue River and Betsy Wells.
Hear Nebraska: We’ll start with the basics. What are the different perspectives of the song, who’s speaking?
Max Holmquist: It’s actually taking place in the early 20th century, so it’s a grandparents’ situation. The story is about a strained relationship, and the mother is expecting a child while the husband is running around on her.
He disappears to gamble and drink away their money, and she’s at home raising a kid and saving money for the birth of their next child. He meanwhile is stuck in his old ways.
HN: Is there something about Carson City that drew you to it and led to its inclusion in the song?
MH: I mean, it’s based on a true story, things that happened to be the backdrop for it. Obviously, not all of the story is included. But even though she’s got this husband who gambles and drinks away, she keeps taking him back until she finds out he has cheated. The story is letters back and forth between him and her.
HN: Where did you pick up the story?
MH: Just through the grapevine, relatives of friends of mine, their grandparents, I think, from that generation.
photo by Daniel Muller
HN: The chorus has the line “If you send me another dollar or two / I’ll make it home soon,” which brings back the idea of home after you’ve written a number of songs on the subject. What does home represent in this song?
MH: For him, he has multiple homes. He has the one he should be paying attention to, where he belongs. He also has this other home where he goes to escape and it’s a disease of sorts he can’t really escape. He has to run away. He’s torn between these two places of residence, physically or otherwise.
HN: What do you think people can learn from stories such as this one?
MH: For me, upon hearing the story, it’s easy to judge the male character. But there’s a reason people are the way they are; it’s never as simple as them being a good or bad person.
The woman character was shaped by this experience, and the male character has his own problems that he battles. I think it’s a close examination of the human condition, just looking deeper at the story and seeing how these two people relate to each other.
photo by Natasha Richardson
HN: What led you to choose this song as the one the new album is named after?
MH: The song itself is a little different in style, the fingerpicking and the tempo, but it fits in with the catalogue. I think it stood out to me as different from the rest. And the story itself, I really like it. I think it’s one of the more honest I’ve told. I think it’s non-partisan to some degree. I don’t know, as far as what it’s about, it stood out that way and musically as well. For that reason, I wanted to showcase it.
HN: Who recorded the album and who took part in the rest of its production?
MH: It was recorded by Ian Aeillo in his living room. He is a very talented engineer, very kind-hearted person and plays with Eli Mardock. Ian is a great guy, and I had the utmost faith in his engineering abilities. The mastering was done by Matt Hovanec.
I wrote and performed all of the songs, no extra instrumentation or vocal backup. Jeremy Wardlaw did the design. It’s a beautiful design with a couple photos by Daniel Muller. I feel very blessed to be surrounded by kind-hearted, talented people. I have faith in what they do, and I think that showcases the great community of Nebraska art, how it supports itself.
All guitar parts use the same picking pattern, which starts with the thumb on the lowest string, then pointer finger on the third-lowest, thumb on the second-lowest and finally pointer finger on the highest.
Guitar tuned one step down
X X X
3 0 0
0 0 0
4 2 0
5 3 X
X X 3
Carson City, it took me away
From my wife and my kids that day
I got debts that no man can pay
He sang and I felt that deep, dark pain
X X X X
0 0 0 0
0 0 0 0
2 2 0 0
0 3 2 X
X X X 3
Oh, if you send me another dollar or two
I’ll make it home soon
I just want to see my boy again
Maybe we can pretend
Where did you go so far away
My father told me what you did that day
I’m sick and tired of all the pain
I can put up with almost anything
But you lied and you cheated and you stole
A little piece of my soul
I won’t send you another dollar or two
Better make it home soon
You’re never gonna see your boy again
And I don’t wanna pretend
I’ll be back again someday
And there’s not a thing that you can say
Coming back to get my boy, OK?
I know there’s a lot of things I did and said
And I know you want me dead
I can’t walk away and hang my head
If you send me another dollar or two
I’ll make it home soon
I just wanna see my boy again
Maybe we can pretend
Michael Todd is Hear Nebraska's managing editor. He quit gambling while he was ahead in middle school after spending the biggest part of his winnings on a snare drum. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.