Every once in a while, an artist puts so much love and effort into a project that it glows. The Way Forth is one of these projects. A patchwork quilt of music, letters, song and film, Rachel Grimes‘ multi-media release tackles multiple subjects with aplomb: Appalachian heritage, patriarchy, colonialism and the endurance ~ and ultimate triumph ~ of women.
For the most part, the music is upbeat, even cheery, an eerie replica of the insincere smiles worn on the faces of oppressors. Listen one way and hear the pride of an old Kentucky home; listen another and wince at the killing of Native Americans. Marvel at the fortitude of an 85-year-old woman with 103 descendants; cringe at the deprivations of indentured servants. The church hymn “Old 100” calls listeners to a higher cause. “Sunday shoes” serve as an indictment against Christian men who terrorized their families. For most of the album, it’s hard to identify the line between wholesome pride and shame. Whitewashed history is exposed, as Grimes leaves no place to hide. Yet a medley of traditional, Kentucky-rooted songs (including “Oh Susanna!”) comes across as entirely sincere.
These are the mixed emotions one inherits when investigating family history. It would be easy to gloss over the sins of prior generations, and even easier to issue a blanket indictment. But the set provides no clear answers, splaying raw material like an unedited family scrapbook, never meant to be viewed by a wider audience. This intimacy lies at the heart of The Way Forth. By sharing everything she has discovered, Grimes invites audiences to delve into their own family trees with an unflinching eye (and in this case, ear). Those familiar with Matana Roberts’ recent COIN COIN Chapter Four: Memphis will find the two make an uncomfortable diptych, a jagged pairing of perspectives black and white. Each is laden with sadness, stumbling toward and collapsing on hope. Roberts’ hope is interwoven with the means of expression. Grimes’ hope is “a wish for redemption,” embedded without irony in a finale without words.
Grimes’ instrumentation is exquisite. Known for her piano work in Rachel’s, the artist here shows off her compositional abilities, writing for ensemble and choir, showcasing soloist and spoken word. The suite offers a complex diorama of feeling and thought. Themes repeat, tumbling through history like inherited genes. Intense longing imbues “Sisterhood of Man,” while strings swirl with pride around the narrator of “Red House School.” In the middle of the set, the incantatory “The Hysterical Society” bursts with ebullience, a reminder that yes ~ joy can bloom even in the harshest of circumstances. In the video, a sign reads “Proud to Be American,” but the montage of images resists any conservatism, instead offering a parade of male and female, black and white, Grimes implying that she is proud of all heritages, not just her own. Perhaps her highest personal revelation arrives in “Nowhere On Earth,” as she returns home and exclaims, “It smells the same! If there is any soil, any wind on earth I have come from, it is this place.”
The film (set for release next year in expanded form) offers grace-filled dignity to its subjects: in “Got Ahold of Me,” elderly hands, scrapbooks, playbills and Native American artefacts; in “For So Long,” antlers and abandoned shacks. Some of the tough tracks (“Dolly,” “Bill of Sale,” “End of Dominion”) may contain darker visuals, but we trust the hand of Catharine Axley, whose sensitivity is present in every frame. Grimes and Axley make peace with the Appalachian past, not excusing a single sin, but saying we will tell every story, and hold our heads high. (Richard Allen)