Reading Louis L’Amour with Jamestown Revival
Austin folk duo’s new project set the Western writer’s tales to music
‘Fireside With Louis L’Amour’ will be released on Friday, May 28. The single and video “Prospector’s Blues” is already available on all platforms.
In their early days based in California, broke and barnstorming around the West to play bars and clubs as a talented but unknown country-folk duo, Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance of Jamestown Revival turned to Louis L’Amour’s classic frontier tales for solace, inspiration and escape.
Chance recalls buying “Hondo” and other L’Amour titles in truckstop convenience stores and recalls trading L’Amour’s memoir, “The Education of a Wandering Man,” back and forth with Clay in those salad days.
“That really set us on fire,” Chance recalled recently from home in Austin.
They modeled their creative life after L’Amour, the hardscrabble adventure-seeking writer who penned upwards of 100 books in his life and played by his own rules all the while.
“He didn’t really have a plan,” Chance said of L’Amour. “He was working odd jobs, hoboing, jumping trains, working on merchant ships. I think we get really related, like, ‘We don’t know what we’re doing. But we know we’re chasing after something and we’re collecting these stories, and we’re going to put them to use.’”
They would go on to name their second album after L’Amour’s memoir and had long talked about doing a L’Amour-themed album, though it never quite fit in as as the duo broke out as a national touring act and moved back to Texas.
The novel coronavirus pandemic finally gave them time to dig into L’Amour’s work, the romantic and gritty stories of gunslingers and ranchers, of love and loss and codes of honor and family ties. The result is the six-song concept EP “Fireside with Louis L’Amour,” to be released May 28.
When the pandemic struck and the duo was grounded in Austin, they picked up “The Collected Short Stories of Louis L’Amour, Volume 1: Frontier Stories” and started turning the stories into minimalist songs at a home studio (they nicknamed it “Songbird Studio” because of how often chirping birds end up audible on tracks recorded there).
Moving chronologically through the story collection, Clay and Chance plan to continue adapting the short stories and releasing L’Amour songs for years to come.
“Our goal is to periodically revisit this because we’re such fans of his work,” Chance said recently from Austin.
The literary-minded duo has had adaptation on the mind, as they’ve been working for the past six years on a Broadway-bound musical adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s young adult novel “The Outsiders” (it’s due for a Chicago run in spring 2020). The creative exercise of adapting L’Amour was smaller in scale and more personal, assigning themselves reading and meeting up to make a song the next day.
“We’d each have our notes of things that we thought stood out or phrases that really stuck with us,” Chance recalled. “And then we’d get together and sort of map out the song, what we felt the elements of the story were that we needed.”
On “Prospector’s Blues,” for instance, they began with L’Amour’s “Trap of Gold,” a haunting, Poe-esque tale about a miner who strikes gold inside of a precariously hollow mountain, risking death to continue picking at it.
“It’s essentially ‘Breaking Bad,’ in a really distilled way,” Chance said of the timless story of greed. “Like, ‘How much do you need?’ When do you get out?’”
Jamestown made it their own, singing in the first person and weaving a foreboding bootstomper with the refrain “Sooner or later the whole thing is coming down.”
In each of the L’Amour songs, they wanted to make listeners feel the way they do when they read a L’Amour story – immersed in a world of tactile and emotional detail, hanging on to every word.
“In 30 pages he can give you so many details and draw you in – for me, I just I feel like I’m a kid again, reading the story,” Chance said. “It’s been really good for us, I think, to challenge the way we wrote to just step outside of ourselves and have to translate another story.”
The L’Amour songs are the second quarantine project Jamestown has released. The first, “A Field Guide to Loneliness, “ they made in the early lockdown period – written separately from one another before they formed a pod – to reflect on the separation and solitude that so suddenly hit in spring 2020. And they wrote enough over the past year that Clay and Chance are going back into the studio now to record a new full-length album.
“Not touring gave us a lot of tome to just focus on writing,” Chance said. “We wouldn’t have had that opportunity otherwise.”
In early May, the duo got to take a long-delayed and much-anticipated trip here to Durango to meet with Beau L’Amour, the author’s son, on the L’Amour family ranch to discuss the project and shoot some video. The family has been supportive of Jamestown’s project throughout.
After a long, COVID-forced break from the road, Jamestown Revival is eyeing dates for its return to play Colorado, where they’ve been regulars in Denver, Aspen and points in between (and where they recorded 2019’s “San Isabel”).
In early April, the duo played its first live show in more than a year at an outdoor venue with a distanced crowd on the riverfront in New Braunfels, Texas. Chance called it exhilarating but also, yes, weird and intimidating for a pair that spent hundreds of pre-pandemic nights performing on stage together.
“John and I were really nervous,” he recalled. “The first half-hour I couldn’t really lose myself in it because I was so self-aware. And then we sort of settled in.”
The band doesn’t have a tour on the books this summer but they are booked to play Telluride Blues & Brews in September and expect to do a run of Colorado club shows then.
And while the pandemic and its shutdowns turned out to be a productive time for the duo — two EPs recorded and released a full-length album’s worth of songs written — still Chance and his bandmate were as subject to its anxieties and negative impacts as anyone else.
“I feel like I’ve had three different identities in the past year and a half, coming through different crises,” Chance said. “But I’m back. I feel good. I feel like I’m coming out of the fog.”
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