Portland Americana duo Muddy Ruckus is singer/guitarist Ryan Flaherty and singer/percussionist Erika Stahl. They formed in 2013, and I’ve been a fan since pretty much day one. “Pretty Bones,” their second album, was released last year, and now they’re back with a two-song EP called “Awakening Enkindled.” To paraphrase the classic film “Network,” Muddy Ruckus is mad as hell, and they’re not gonna take it anymore.
So they’ve channeled their frustration and put it into two fantastic new songs that were recorded at Bulkhead Studio during a three-hour session on Aug. 20. A press release that accompanied the songs explained that Flaherty and Stahl are both inspired and enraged by current events. “Reflectively spawned over the last several months, these songs came to a heartbroken boil after the tragedy that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12 and the unacceptable response of our current president.”
It goes on to say that not unlike other Ruckus songs, these go after what they oppose: haters, elitists, injustice and falsehood. “In the end the message is clear, things must change and we’ve all had enough. May these tunes help rattle the outdated system and nurture the rebellion against hatred and inequality that sadly still exist in today’s world.”
The songs are “Awakening Enkindled” and “Runnin’ Outta Sound.” I listened to them both a half-dozen times while reading along with the lyrics that Flaherty sent me. “Awakening Enkindled” includes the lines “Unworthy of this world, surrendering to lies/Fallen from the tree, lamenting our demise/A million second chances that we cast into the fire/Smoldering in vacant compromise.” Flaherty and Stahl spit the words out as much as they sing them with just enough fire to leave a mark but not enough to burn the house down. It’s more effective that way. At the end of the two and a half minutes, the instinct is to hit “play” again, so I did just that a number of times, so as to let the song really sink in.
“Runnin Outta Sound,” at just under four minutes, picks up where the other song leaves off, in that it’s steeped in anger but also has a poetic flow to it. “Let’s consider the realities/It ain’t easy when your eyes build a wall around all you see/It’s too simple to pick up the key/And you turn around the truth like a steadfast philistine.” Toward the end, it breathes fire like a “Game of Thrones” dragon, then stops on a dime with a final guitar flurry and drum beat.
Hearing the songs and reading about what inspired them got me thinking about the role that music plays in politics and how protest songs are actually really important. This is certainly not a new idea. Songs that raise social awareness about injustices in the world have been around a long time and are more vital now than ever. They matter. Need some examples? Look no further than Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
I reached out to Flaherty to get his thoughts on the subject. “Everyone has their own taste, but I believe a songwriter should be able to express whatever they want in their music. If someone is being political with their art, hopefully it’s because they are having strong feelings that cannot be denied and must be expressed. I say, if you feel something strongly, never hesitate expressing it, in any form. Of course, that can be twisted around for good or bad, but I don’t really bother with people who tell me what I should and shouldn’t do.” It’s worth noting, however, that Flaherty said the two new Muddy Ruckus songs were not necessarily intended to be protest songs. “But we all know what has been going on over the past several months, and that’s when they were written.”
I asked for a bit more specific insight on the two new songs. Flaherty was thoughtful in his response. “They both came to me in three phases. The first phase crept up during Standing Rock’s struggle to stop the North Dakota Pipeline and the battle that took place in Standing Rock. The second phase took shape after Donald Trump won (or didn’t win) the election and started spewing his lies and hateful rhetoric into our everyday lives, staining our minds with gloom. Some lyrics definitely reflect that and point fingers at the overall corrupt system. The third and final phase brought everything to a heartbreaking boil with the tragedy in Charlottesville, when Heather Heyer lost her life while protesting against white supremacy. When that happened, our hearts boiled and wept, and we decided to record and release these songs.” Flaherty said these are the darkest days he’s ever experienced. “The past 10 months have been brutal for all of us, and it has deeply saddened me and obviously affected my music and inspired me to write. I confess, I have been quite angry and confused, as many of us have been.”
As for the heart of the songs, Flaherty offered this up: ” ‘Awakening Enkindle’ could be viewed as an angry letter written to the crooked ‘establishment’ that holds power in this country and the world. It could also be viewed as a spell or ‘voodoo doll’-style song, cursing and casting a hex of disapproval and disgust upon those philistines and fascists who hold power. This song is also a call for people to wake up, get together and stand up for their values, love and peace. But it’s also a lament.”
” ‘Runnin’ Outta Sound’ is a war cry, perhaps. I really got into this one because of Standing Rock. I was so upset how the Native Americans and protesters were treated and how the land they were protecting was taken from them. I felt so ashamed to be an American during that time. I have felt that shame ever since, and it has only grown more intense. The lyrics ‘I’ve been thinking bout leaving town’ is referring to wanting to leave home and go join the protesters in North Dakota.”
Flaherty also has strong thoughts about the current unrest about certain monuments that have been making the news almost daily. “These monuments need to be taken down. They are not history; they are statues. History is not erased by taking down monuments that were raised to celebrate traitors and evil doers. We need to focus on what we see in front of us now. We are not trying to change history. In fact, we are making history by taking these statues down. We are not celebrating these symbols of terror and racism. They make people feel bad. We need to remember history, not with a monument, but by focusing on how people are treated in today’s society and making sure we don’t make the same mistakes of the past.”
I say hats off to Flaherty and Stahl for speaking – and singing – their truth. To keep up with Muddy Ruckus, follow them on Facebook and find them at muddyruckus.com. They’ll be headed to Nashville in a few weeks for the Americanafest and have a local performance at Empire on Oct. 12. The “Awakening Enkindled” EP is available for free here: muddyruckus.bandcamp.com/album/awakening-enkindled-ep.