Owen Temple Takes a Long Look Forward and Back on His New Album ‘Rings on A Tree’
The Collection Investigates His Family History and The History of Humankind with His Usual Blend of Humor and Honesty
Owen Temple’s new record, Rings on A Tree, is a concept album – an examination of family history and the way every interaction we have reverberates for generations.
“It’s clear that our lives are a distillation and expansion of the lives that have come before us,” Temple said. “Every life, every interaction of matter and energy that happens, reverberates through the universe in an ever-expanding field. Waves of behavior that cause other waves of behavior, not just in one life, but in all our lives.
“During the Covid lockdown, I wasn’t writing much on my own, but when a friend – most frequently Walt Wilkins – would call and say, ‘Let’s go to a park and write a song,’ I’d always go. These meetups resulted in a reexamination of what’s important in life. We wrote songs that looked at the intergenerational interactions that created a certain wisdom, insights that transcend our narrow view of the present.”
As the songs accumulated, Temple saw them taking a spiritual, philosophical tone. “I was haunted by the ideas of our great-grandparents. Shadowy photos and mysterious documents from their eight lives give us clues about how these people have major consequence on our lives, even if we don’t understand exactly how. If you trace the branches of any family tree back far enough, you can see we’re all connected. That inspired the song ‘Rings on a Tree’ and the entire album.”
AN ALBUM IN THREE PARTS – BIG BANG, PANTHEON, AND TREE OF LIFE
Temple organized the songs into three five song sets: Big Bang, Pantheon and Tree of Life. “Part 1 – Big Bang is about beginnings, investigating the consciousness we all share. Before any stories are made, there is I AM, my ancestors and yours, the beginning of knowledge, the awareness of being a finite, mortal human. The perspectives on ‘Days,’ ‘Watch It Shine,’ and ‘Beautiful Accidents’ are all perspectives of squinting to see where we first appear on the historical map of space and time. ‘Always Becoming’ acknowledges the forward motion and the constants of change, growth, and evolution.
“Part 2 – Pantheon contains songs about connecting with our ancestors and our lineage. ‘Fork in the Road’ is about the path not taken and the continual choice of our next steps. ‘Can’t Stop Won’t Stop’ and ‘Virginia and Hazel’ are songs about great-grandparents and the concerns and experiences they had when they were young people that then had consequences for us, their descendants, in our lifetimes. ‘Are We There Yet’ is about the intergenerational car trips in all of our lives – the older people in front, the younger people in the back, wondering where we’re going. ‘Churches and Cantinas’ is anthropological, studying the impulse toward redemption that those two institutions (represented by two people in the story) seek each in their own way.
“Part 3 – Tree of Life presents the connection to nature that is the core of our lineage. ‘Wild Seeds’ and ‘Rings on a Tree’ are about the struggle to survive and thrive that we share in common with all life; ‘Gentle James’ is about an ancestor who was a farmer and the people he influenced, despite being a shy man, uncomfortable with others. ‘More Like September’ is a love song both to fall and to a love that abides between extremes. ‘Twenty Years’ ties everything up with a fantasy of meeting with your future self to receive some spiritual guidance.”
RECORDING AT THE FINISHING SCHOOL
Temple enlisted the help of producer Gordy Quist to bring the songs to life. “Gordy’s been a songwriting collaborator for a long time. He took over The Finishing School, the revered studio of George Reiff (Band of Heathens, Ray Wylie Hubbard). I love his sonic aesthetic. We took the time to pause, after we played it through for the musicians in the studio, and ask, ‘Is there anything we can do to make it more interesting?’ He approached the arranging in a way that was both comfortable and challenging.”
Temple and Quist played guitar and Temple’s long time rhythm section – Josh Flowers on bass and drummer Rick Richards – laid down the foundation. Other players included Trevor Nealon from Band of Heathens on organ and piano, Geoff Queen on pedal steel, Dobro and guitar and invited guests adding vocal harmonies and fiddle.
The album opens with “The Song of Us,” a mid-tempo country tune, celebrating a world that’s changing fast, but fundamentally stays the same. Baritone guitar and pedal steel bubble beneath Temple’s vocal, as he delivers a mellow benediction uniting earth and the cosmos through the breath of a single human. “If Thich Naht Hahn and Frank Sinatra wrote a song together, would it sound like this?”
Long sustained notes from Geoff Queen’s pedal steel gives “Watch It Shine” a celestial aura. Temple celebrates the light within and the light that surrounds us – the shimmering of the sun, moon and stars. They’re all reflected in the harmonies of the chorus. “Beautiful Accidents” describes the magical moments in life that are often overlooked until years later. Temple and Kelley Mickwee (the song’s co-writer) sketch out a family’s history, from first kiss to marriage and family. Acoustic mandolin and Nealon’s smooth electric piano give the music a nostalgic ambience.
“Fork in the Road” is an up-tempo rocker, with a hint of R&B in its swirling organ, crunchy electric guitar and cool backbeat. The uplifting harmonies of the chorus remind us that every moment changes our lives in profound, if unrecognized ways. “Are We There Yet?” is a bluesy country tune with twanging guitars, sticks on the snare and piano keys clicking like highway mile markers on a long summer road trip. The chorus suggests a ‘50s rock’n’roll hit playing on a radio.
The music on the album flows smoothly, highlighting the journeys of individuals, families and humanity as a whole. “It’s the arc of a hero’s journey that Joseph Campbell identified,” Temple said. “The idea of venturing out of your ordered life to have experiences that will change you for the better. The songs are artifacts from the paths we’ve walked, as individuals and part of humanity. The hope is they’ll forge a connection to the past that will help us make wiser choices in the present.”
-Jim Caligiuri, Austin Chronicle
“Temple’s songs are sophisticated and enlightening… He writes with a folksinger’s eye, observing intimate, interior details of every day life, and painting big, mythological sketches…”
-Eli Messinger, Hyperbolium
“Owen Temple sings the truth. In the narrative folk tradition, the Austin-based singer-songwriter pens tunes that tell stories in plain-spoken yet persuasive fashion. His characters could be real, and many times they are. But there’s no doubt that Temple is nourishing his muse with the realities of life around him… Musically, Temple keeps to his spacious merger of bluegrass, blues and folk.”
-Mario Tarradell, Dallas Morning News