Local folk-rocker Chuck Prophet understands the irony of the situation, that he cannot traditionally promote what might be the best, most-rollicking record of his 35-year-long career, “The Land That Time Forgot.” It features his wife Stephanie Finch on backing vocals for most of its 12 tracks, from “Best Shirt On,” the stomping opener, through lonesome ballads “Paying My Respects to the Train” and “High As Johnny Thunders” and a punk-pulsed “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”-reminiscent reflection called “Marathon.” But with concert venues shuttered worldwide in the wake of the coronavirus clampdown, there’s not a lot he can do to support it. “Don’t all your albums get to be the best one for a little while?” he asks rhetorically, humbly downplaying its catalog significance. “The worst part is that we’re not out playing shows, and the only way that we’ve ever been able to build on what we do is through hand-to-hand combat like that.”
What else constitutes this hand-to-hand combat?
We get in an Econoline, and we go from town to town, and we barge our way into the college radio stations, we make friends, relationships and we play Madison and St. Louis and the Hudson Valley and Scranton, Penn. We go out there every year in the van and we do that, and that’s hand to hand combat. And for me, it’s always a vacation.
How have you and Stephanie been coping with the pandemic, otherwise?
Well, there were parts about the big pause button that we kind of dug. Stephanie has been helping her mother down in L.A., who’s recovering from having hip surgery. And we’d been on the go so much before this that for a couple of weeks it was like, “Whoa!” But now we’re OK day to day. And I’m not out there on social media with a tip jar around my neck. But I do worry about the whole ecosystem. I mean, it’s not just the DuNord and the Makeout Room and the Swedish American Hall and the Chapel. Those are the kinds of places I play all over the world. The places I play are not governed by some corporate entity that has a lot of interest from Saudi Arabia. And now that I see all these places in my neighborhood (the Duboce Triangle) boarded up, I’m trying to imagine a world where everything remains boarded up, except there’ll be a Starbucks on every corner. Because the corporate people will survive, you know — there’s still going to be a Chevron, a Starbucks. But what about all these smaller businesses?
Mark Lanegan recently said that there won’t be room for artists like him — who sell most of their CDs at the merch table — in that new ecosystem.
Well, I suppose that’s always been the case. I remember when my band Green On Red had our little indie record “Gas Food Lodging” and it was making noise, and we didn’t really think that it was moving any units. But somebody at the label said, “Look, if you had sold this many books last week, you’d be at the top of the New York Times bestseller list.” So everything is always relative like that. So I do have to shake it off when people at the labels say, “Well, it’s a real difficult time right now.” Because I’m here to tell you that I was doing this in 1985, and you know what they said to me back then? “It’s a real hard time right now.” That’s why I honestly believe Bob Dylan when he says “Someday everything’s gonna be different when I paint my masterpiece.” I still believe that — if I can get it right — it’s gonna change everything.
But there are three presidential-themed songs on “The Land”?
For “Nixonland,” my fourth-grade class took a field trip to a California town where the teacher took us in a building and said, “Children, look around. You are now standing in what was once Richard Nixon’s first law office.” When he had his Western White House, our family would take vacations to San Clemente, and I remember walking on the beach with my big sister, and a secret serviceman telling us “You can’t go any further,” and he pointed to Nixon’s house up on the cliff. And now you know you’d probably take him back in a heartbeat. And I wrote “Paying My Respects to the Train” with Kim Richey, and she had a book of old photographs, and one showed all these people, dressed up with their hats in their hands, standing along the railroad tracks, because Lincoln’s body was traveling back to Springfield from D.C. and the route had been advertised so people could pay their respects. And the other song, “Get Off the Stage,” is a bit more of a contemporary kind of song.
Is there a light at the end of this tunnel?
Well, that’s a good metaphor. I do believe that we are in a tunnel, and we’re sort of in that place now where everybody’s getting into a domestic argument, like, “Are you sure we were supposed to take a left back there?” Because when will there be a light? And we also have to come to grips with the fact that we’re not going to get a consensus for when it’s safe to go back to work, because I’m afraid that all the experts are going to disagree. But then again, I have to point out, you do know I’m not a scientist, right?