His new album Painkiller reflects on his life and turbulent times in the West.
To say singer/songwriter Brenn Hill is determined is to underestimate this 6th generation Utahan regarding his mission towards writing and music. After more than a dozen albums and over 20 years on the road performing, his material is becoming more topical.
“I believe in the power of words,” Hill says. “And a song’s impact has to stand the lyric read as well as have a great sound. But I have a number of things to say and it is becoming apparent that I am writing for a much broader listening audience, and that’s my intent.”
His new album, Painkiller (Defenders Recording Co.) was released in May of this year, and while his long-lived love for the West and cowboy ways continues, as a seasoned poet, he uses lyrical language to peel back the layers of life around him to reveal a broader and deeper understanding of both the cowboy and “civilian” world. He lives with his wife and three children in Hooper, Utah, where he performs a delicate balance between keeping the home fires going, cheering from sporting field sidelines, being horseback and negotiating a busy performance and travel schedule – with time in the recording studio. All the while, he maintains time to write. Then came COVID.
I asked him, with two years of pandemic lockdowns, did that forced reality affect his writing or life approach?
“Well, yeah, both – so I just put my nose to the grindstone and wrote songs,” Hill says. “Having all my gigs go away and having our main revenue source – which is touring – go away – what else could I do? I went back to doing other things around our place like building fence and pouring concrete – just doing whatever I had to do for us to survive. I had this bank of time on my hands that I hadn’t had before. So I sat down and found I could write about anything I wanted – and put as much energy as I wanted to put into it. For me, it was kind of unprecedented. I just wrote and wrote, and all of a sudden, found I had enough material for at least two records, after gleaning through everything.”
One of those records was Still in the Fight (Defenders Recording Co.), released in June of 2021. The new album, Painkiller, was just released this past May.
Painkiller is the one really big album of songs that came out of the pandemic, and with it, an amazing yet very painful gift fall into his lap: the title song “Painkiller.”
“When my demons come back to haunt me
I remember every hard fall
Every shoulda, woulda and coulda
And I curse them one and all.
Unbroke horses and bad decisions
The burnin’ sun and the frozen ground
And the northwest wind so unforgivin’
And the dark of night gets me down.”
“At the time, I was fighting very painful sciatica along with some old injuries that just seemed to rear up with a lot more pain,” Hill remembers. “Pain that got me up and kept me up most nights. On top of that, I was in an empty house as my wife and kids were off on a well-deserved Spring Break trip. It was strange as that has never happened in going on 22 years of marriage – that I am home and they are gone; it’s always the other way around. And you know what I found? It’s not a good for a man to be alone.“
I asked him how that song happened.
“I am up in the middle of the night and “Painkiller” just falls out onto the paper,” Hill says. “And all of ,a sudden I had this opportunity, this alone time, to really dedicate mental energy to some subject matter that both bothered and intrigued me right then, and I could really focus my mind and write and allow my feelings out, and boy there was plenty during the pandemic.”
His song, “No Country for Faithless Men” expresses a kind of emotion and shared reality he hasn’t written about on previous records. As an album, Painkiller is more experiential. It is stories of personal experiences – some that happened to him and some that happened to others he cares about. Stories about problems that had to be faced, like menacing environmental issues and questions of faith. I asked him if that is a fair assessment of the record.
“Yes, actually,” Hill says. “That’s what I am trying to do as a contemporary narrator of our collective Western story. It’s what I have always tried to do, but it seemed to be really much more apparent in the writing for this record. So, in the midst of a pandemic, we get a double whammy – this epic drought in the West. And some of my closest friends are in agriculture, and they depend on what falls from the sky and what grows up from the ground, and it’s intricately linked, so “No Country for Faithless Men” is about the drought and the battle family ranchers are fighting on a day-to-day basis to continue to bring a product, a very good product, to our tables to feed us all. And they are in the fight of their lives. They are in a battle right now that really the West hasn’t seen in a long time. And it’s testing them in many ways. Never before here in Utah have so many creeks run dry – creeks that my 91-year-old father has never seen run dry. And so the song’s back story is about our faith and dependence on the greater forces of nature, and the new reality we all have to learn to adapt to. It’s from a conversation with a young family rancher, who is a fifth or sixth generation guy, trying to survive and maybe for the first time in his fairly young life – I think he’s mid-30s and a tough guy – but his faith is being rattled.”
“So save again this righteous man
Let the Spirit guide his Houlihan
Let this sacred land be green again
This ain’t no country for faithless men.”
Hill looks at life through the lens focused on the people around him – working ranch families – the unsung heroes of our nation’s food supply. And it’s not always a romantic vision. In his song, “The Humble Son,” a young man fights his frustration and anger after turning them against the ones he loves in a culture of suppressed feelings.
“I put my Dad against a wall
In a fit of rage
He came up swingin’
A whole lot younger than his age
And I learned humility the hard way
I snubbed him to a post
Cinched my saddle on
When they turned us loose
I could not stay on
I learned humility the hard way.”
Some strong words for the cowboy genre, but they reveal parts of the culture that could use light shown on them.
“As an artist, what I feel is within my control is the subject matter and the emotions and imagery I can use to deliver a message about things that should be considered,” Hill says. “I can make them more broadly accessible than the perceived limits of our cowboy genre. And I think the benefit of doing that is trying to bridge the cultural divide between urban and rural, and maybe provide some insight about how the rural agrarian has to adapt to the changing times and continue their land stewardship practices well into the 21st century, with a technical revolution that we all seem to be racing along with.
“What is beyond my control is how far I can get that message out,” Hill continues. “I am spending every waking moment trying to do that. If I am not on the road playing music, I am at home making more music, and if I am not at home making music then I am trying to create more opportunities to present the music. So, I think the acceptance of the art has always been aimed at trying to broaden the audience. I am trying to stretch as far as I can by mentioning the sometimes unspoken subject matter of the West, and all the many issues and emotions and situations that we are facing, and then making the material accessible to a more diverse audience.
“My work is all about trying to cross that ever-deepening divide that seems to be between urban and rural. I want folks to understand and see both sides. I am squarely on the side of the agrarian, particularly the Western agrarian. They are the people I understand, grown up around and cowboyed with. But I recognize that their efforts extend far beyond where we find ourselves here in the West; they help feed our nation and ultimately help feed our world. So I feel I need to do everything I can do to get their message out. I believe the technological revolution can help spread that understanding. And yet, even with all the technology available to us, I find that the pen is still the mightiest weapon of all.”
Brenn Hill’s Painkiller is a compelling and artful listen. Its lyrical vulnerability can hopefully open doors to a greater understanding of the “placed” agrarian people of America, especially in the West. People who know no clock or calendar in their seemingly endless tasking to help feed us all.