(review by Bill Glahn)
Squeeze It Easy is an album that flirts with nostalgia, but never gets there. That’s a positive development in the world of fireside cowboy songs - the kind of songs Frank specializes in.
The first song that stands out, in a great story, told well kind-of-way, is “Isom Dart.” “Isom Dart” is a true murder ballad that would have offered a better conclusion to Frank’s most critically acclaimed album, World Without End, a joint affair with John Murry. A near faultless album, World Without End presented a collection of murder ballads based on true stories that placed a dark oeuvre on America’s history – from lynching to workplace shootings. Unfortunately, the album’s final track, “Doc Cunningham 1868,” presented the kind of revisionist post-Civil War nostalgia disproved by author Timothy B. Tyson in his book, Blood Done Sign My Name. Nostalgia is the way we want to remember things.
So who was Isom Dart? Dart was a black cowboy murdered by Tom Horn, a gun-for-hire enforcer in the employ of a local (Wyoming/Colorado border) cattle baron. But you won’t find his character in either the movie, Tom Horn, or Mr. Horn, the 1979 TV mini-series. In Frank’s song, Dart is killed for being a rustler. The BlackPast website offers a more balanced, but not altogether conflicting, history. “Isom Dart later returned to Brown’s Hole around 1890 and established his own ranch, but local cattlemen suspected he had built up his ranch herd from cattle he’d rustled from their ranches. The ranchers hired the notorious range detective, Tom Horn, to punish Dart. Horn ambushed and killed Isom Dart on October 3, 1900 near Brown's Hole. Public opinion was (and continues to be) divided about Dart's guilt. Some Brown's Hole residents mourned his death, claiming Dart was killed by cattleman who wanted his land and cattle. They saw Dart as a good-hearted, talented horseman and a top bronc stomper. Others believed he never completely relinquished his life of cattle rustling and thus remained a menace to the community.”
It’s a fantastic story, but Squeeze It Easy covers ground far and wide. For the first time that I am aware of, Frank directly sings about his time in Vietnam (1967-68) as a member of an engineering brigade (159th). There are love songs (Anna Maria, Me And My West Coast Girl, The Old Rebel Soldier). Yes, “The Old Rebel Soldier” is a love song. It avoids nostalgia by telling a love story. There are childhood remembrances from Memphis (Me & Ol’ Wib Crump). As described on his website, it includes “the high adventures of black cowboys, Mexican maidens, Vietnam vets, desert ghost towns, cheap motels, one night stands, dope smokin’ bronc riders, childhood friends, and the old rebel soldier. Oh, and invisible paint!” These are the stories of a man well-traveled and who knows how to tell them. But what’s this about invisible paint?
Two tracks that stand out from the rest are “Unusual Artist” and “Coyote Mind.” Frank has visited this type of narrative before, but rarely - and certainly not as effectively. Frank initially refers to these as “…strange little songs, like ‘Judas Iscariot.’ Weird fuckin shit.” But he expands from there. “’Unusual Artist’ is a song about emptiness, the lack of true existence in anything. ‘Coyote Mind’ is actually about recognizing your true nature, who you really are. Both of them are story songs, it’s just that the spiritual aspect is closer to the surface in them than it is in the other songs. They’re more obviously mystical stories, whereas that aspect is more hidden in the other songs.”
When asked to expand on his spiritual beliefs, he states, “I practice Dharma, which is not really a faith, it's not even a religion. It's an experience. It's kind of like Gnosticism, like [poet William] Blake talked about, in that respect. It's about knowledge, not belief. You watch your mind, your thoughts, your emotions, and see what's what - where it all comes from, what it's made of, and so on. I see it as a form of scientific investigation that you do in the laboratory of your own mind. So it's direct seeing, not faith.”
"The thing is, this is actually what's taught in the esoteric schools of all religions, though they don't all use the same terminology. But when you look at what they're describing, they're all pointing at the same thing. It's what Jesus taught, 'The kingdom of heaven is within you.'"
Overall, Squeeze It Easy offers a healthy dose of what longtime listeners have come to expect – good stories well sung and played – stories that will find a welcome home around a campfire, a house concert, or an Americana festival stage. The difference that separates Frank from the average storyteller, though, is that he’s so well traveled. How many cowboy singers can you name that fought in a war, survived Gnashville, told Vanguard Records to go fuck themselves, embarked on a hippie dream, toiled for 30 years in a union job, raised a family, adopted a Gnostic philosophy and did it all the way from Memphis. Yeah, it’s a mighty long way down the dusty trail…