Billy Bragg, the Sherpa of Heartbreak

BY Ray Suarez  June 3, 2013 at 3:08 PM EDT


Billy Bragg’s latest album, “Tooth & Nail,” is heavily influenced by the Americana country sound. “We Brits have always had a huge appreciation for American roots music.” Video edited by Joshua Barajas.

For a guy from England, musician Billy Bragg keeps a close and informed eye on America. He follows its politics, its music and, for better or worse, its eating habits, namely its obsession with bacon. He recounted how his tour bus passed a truck stop restaurant in Black River Falls, Wis., and there in the window, a banner offering maple bacon milkshakes. “It seemed to me to sum up America, which imagines that it can have everything if it wants it, whether it’s a good idea or not,” he said.

We sat on the bus in a hotel parking lot late in his U.s and Canada tour and talked about his latest recording, “Tooth & Nail.” He reflected, with relief, on leaving the “record” business to put more emphasis on the “music” business. He produced “Tooth & Nail” and released it himself, a very different proposition from working with a record label, as the fractured and frantic business of recording and selling music struggles to cope with technological change.

For Bragg, there’s a big difference between the record business and the music business. “The music industry’s thriving. People want to go on gigs. Digital music is made, people want you to go out on gigs. The record industry hasn’t really come to terms with the digital business model. You know they still try to bring in analog ways of doing things, which don’t really make sense anymore,” he said.

Billy Bragg's 'Tooth & Nail'It’s hard to know whether a big label would have ordered up “Tooth & Nail.” It’s a quiet collection of deeply personal, reflective and heavily country music-infused songs. As Bragg has done since his earliest days bashing out punky rock and roll, his concerns and curiosities range widely from the silence around the kitchen table as a love affair runs out of steam to the biggest questions of exploring space, a warming planet and understanding the secrets of physics. In one song, he wryly tells his wife he’ll never be the handyman his own father way, and moments later he laments a world drowning in information that leaves us as confused as ever.

Listening to the album the whole way through for the first time, I was especially struck by Bragg’s cover of Woody Guthrie’s classic “I Ain’t Got No Home.” In Guthrie’s own rendition, and in many subsequent covers, the lament of a man on the verge of being crushed by the Great Depression is up-tempo, an almost rollicking tune that reassures the listener that despite the lyric, our narrator is down but not out. The new Bragg version was a revelation, if only because the song’s concerns seemed so fresh in an age when so many have worked so hard for so long to end up with so little.

“It is so contemporary now. ‘I’ve mined in your mines, I’ve gathered in your corn, I’ve been working since the day I was born, now I worry all the time like I never did before.’ I mean, for our generation, that’s an incredibly stark reality,” Bragg said. “We’ve always believed that we would have a better life than our children, and our children would have a better life than us. It looks like that’s not going to come true now. It looks like our children are perhaps going to be poorer than us and not going to have the same outcome as we’re going to have.”

This year, Bragg turns 56. He still loves the road. Still loves the gigs. He says he can still imagine doing it all, sleeping on the bus, waking up in another city the next morning to play before another audience for a long time to come. But, he says, now he has to pace himself. Bragg remembers the veteran musician Steve Earle telling him back in the ’80s that he would die on one of these buses. “I thought to myself, no! But you know, here I am. After 30 years of touring in the United States of America, I finally got me own big ol’ bus and trailer, and maybe Steve was right. Maybe we will keep doing this ’til we peg out, which will be great if I could count on doing it because I love doing it,” he said.

You could listen to “Tooth & Nail” and include it in a long arc with Bragg’s music going back more than 30 years, and watch the evolution of a musician with a passion for politics who also writes a damn good love song. Or maybe you have never laid eyes, or ears, on Bragg until this moment and just listen out of curiosity. Both approaches have their reward.

The North American tour is over and Bragg is back in England, posting on Facebook and sending tweets about the horrifying killing of a British soldier in a London suburb and the anti-Muslim backlash that followed. He never did try the maple bacon milkshake. He chose to simply admire it instead.