Vincent Neil Emerson sings with a tragic authority that surpasses his age and time spent in the patinated honky tonks of his native Texas. Of course, it’s not the years but the mileage, and at 29, Emerson has crossed more than his fair share of blacktop and dust to write the songs that make up his latest self-titled release. His debut full-length, 2019’s Fried Chicken and Evil Women, showcased a songwriter cognizant of the mythology while managing to leave his own hallmarks on the tapestry of Lonestar music. Artists like Charley Crockett and Texas heroes Eleven Hundred Springs have covered tracks from FC&EW, and if you need further proof of Emerson’s bonafides, just ask Charley– the King of the Gulf Coast boogie will tell you himself that VNE is the real deal. The pandemic of 2020 saw artists from every level and genre affected, and though some have languished creatively, Emerson found a gushing well, penning a remarkable collection of songs that explore his family, his heritage, his past, and his future. Produced by Rodney Crowell and featuring one of the best new songwriters walking around today, Vincent Neil Emerson is an Album of the Year contender worth your time, your money, and your effort. Order now!
AI- I was shocked, absolutely shocked to discover that you’ve really only been at it at this for a decade– less than a decade! How did you get started? What put the guitar in your hand? And what got you on that path to writing?
Around the time I was 19– I’m 29 now, so yes, it’s coming up on a decade– I was sleepin’ in my car and didn’t have anywhere to live. I had a buddy who played around Fort Worth and Dallas, and he encouraged me to start writing and learnin’ more songs. He hooked me up with a bunch of gigs and I got work! Before I knew it, I ended up gettin’ my own apartment and got on my feet! So I started from nothin’ and from scratch, pretty much!
With Fried Chicken and Evil Women, I’m assuming that when that album came out, those songs– or the majority of ’em– had been in your repertoire for some time. With the brand new album, there’s a lot more immediacy to those and your connection to ’em.
Yeah, you hit the nail right on the head with that! All the songs off of Fried Chicken, I wrote a lot of those when I was maybe 20 or 21 and I just held onto them and didn’t get a chance to record them until I was about 25. And then we didn’t put the record out ’til I was 26, 27! So the new album is all brand new songs that I’ve written over the quarantine. They are very fresh!
That’s gotta be a little bit different too because you weren’t able to get out in front of an audience and work ’em out. How are they workin’ out?
Well, I’ve sat with these songs by myself for a long time now, and it is kind of difficult. Just learning a song, you don’t know what it’s like until you take the training wheels off and try it for the first time in front of an audience. As we’ve been rollin’ back into live music and I’ve been playin’ more shows, they’re still fresh on my mind. So I’m thinking about the lyrics a lot more. I think that’s a thing that songwriters do is once you get a tune really memorized, you can play it in your sleep, and you can turn off your mind kind of [like] muscle memory. The new songs, yeah, they mean a lot to me. It’s been fun playin’ ’em live.
Something that you’ve expressed is how the songs on this new album are a lot more personal for you. There’s a great deal of vulnerability. Did you find that a challenge when it came time to actually record these and present them? As in, “I’m gonna let people hear this and let them in.” And in a way that you haven’t before?
I wouldn’t say it was a challenge. It felt really good. It did to finally get those things off my chest! With music, everything is so subjective and what’s good to someone might be bad to someone else. It’s all up to your personal taste. But I think at the end of the day, when it comes to songwriting, I think everyone who’s a fan of real songwriting, even if they might not like the style of music, they can appreciate the honesty. That’s the place that I was comin’ from was trying to write really honest songs and meaningful songs. Songs that mean a lot to me.
And doing that, you managed to have Rodney Crowell come in to produce those songs, produce that honesty. How did that come together?
Well, I ran into him in a Walmart one day…
You’re kidding (laughs)?
(Laughs) We were both reachin’ for the same pizza (laughs)! I started writin’ these songs over the quarantine and a couple of ’em, like the real serious ones like “Learnin’ to Drown”, somehow they found their way to Rodney through the folks at Thirty Tigers who were lookin’ at trying to make a record with me. He really liked the songs, and he gave me a call one day and was like, “Man, these songs are good. Do you have any more?” At the time I was still writing, so he encouraged me and helped me through. He didn’t help co-write anything, but he just kinda encouraged me through my writing process.
When did you go into the studio to record?
That’s a good question. I can’t even remember! I think it was sometime mid-2020.
Where was that at?
It was recorded in Nashville at Sound Emporium Studios.
Tell me about some of the players on there. Are these your regular players, or did you have a different crew with you?
I have a regular band that I do live shows with, but we went with Rodney’s backing band. They’re a bunch of guys that play around Nashville. They’re session guys and they play on the Grand Ole Opry sometimes and they back up Rodney. So we had some of the best players in Nashville play on this one!
You brought up “Learnin’ To Drown”. Boy, that one is just a punch to the heart where you talk about your father’s passing, his suicide. Is that something that you were reluctant to include or did you feel like it was time for you to confront that in song form?
Yeah, I’d always tried to. I’ve written several songs about it, and I’ve always tried to approach it with a certain somethin’ that I just haven’t been able to. I just haven’t been able to approach it the way that I’ve wanted. I actually had a song written about it for this record and I sent it to Rodney. He was brutally honest with me. He was like, “You know, I don’t think that one’s ready yet.” So I put it aside and a little later on, I had “Learnin’ To Drown” kind of kickin’ around. I sent that to him and he was like, “Oh shit, here we go! Yeah!” And I think it’s just because it’s a really hard thing to talk about. It’s a hard thing to put into a song
You just recently had a son of your own, didn’t you? Is that your first one?
Yeah! Yeah, he’s eight months old.
Eight months! Man, wow! So he’s doin’ all kinds of stuff!
Yeah, he was born shortly after I got back from recording this record.
So you’ve really got two creations comin’ around all at the same time! I tell you for me, I don’t think that I was capable of confronting things of that nature until I became a father. Did you find that to be true as well? And do you think that writing these songs about your father’s passing helped prepare you for that emotionally? Becoming a father?
Maybe so. But I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about that. I’ve thought a lot about the relationship I had with my father and the relationship that I want to have with my son. That’s something that I’ve thought about a lot.
Another great song I wanna talk about, “The Ballad Of The Choctaw-Apache, another song that’s very personal to you. For me it evokes that great album Johnny Cash did, Bitter Tears. And this is a true story that you’ve written about from 60 years ago about the Choctaw-Apache tribe of Sabine Parish– but the sentiment is very much relevant to today. Were you conscious of that while you were writing it?
Yeah, I think so. It’s like a protest song, but it’s about 50 years too late or 60 years too late. But those things are still happening and it is relevant these days. I just felt like people needed to know the history and they need to know about that tribe and what they went through. It’s not something that anybody really talks about in Texas and Louisiana. It just needed to be written out of respect for the tribe and my family.
“High On Gettin’ By” has got to be one of my favorite songs on the record. When you talk about being “drunk on the ideas of my future,” I feel I know exactly what you’re talkin’ about, and I think that was how a lot of people felt when the bottom fell out of everything. If I understand it right, that was the first thing to come out of your quarantine writing session. At that point in time, when you were writing that song, how were you feeling about what was going on in the world? Did it feel like everything was gonna be over? How concerned were you?
Oh, man, it was pretty terrifying! Especially having a baby on the way! I wasn’t sure what was gonna happen, and yeah, it did feel like the rug got yanked out from underneath us and the bottom was falling out. But within that song, I think there’s still determination. I think that’s the main sentiment that I walked away with. Some sort of resolution is that we can’t give up. We gotta keep pushin’ on.
A year ago, you released “Road Runner” with Colter Wall. What have you and Colter been up to lately?
Well, I see Colter every once in a while, but he’s been down in the hill country workin’ as a ranch hand for a mutual buddy of ours. He’s just traveling between Canada and Texas. I did seem out the other day! He’s a good dude, man. I love that man! He’s always been very supportive of my music and my songwriting and everything.
I talked to Charley Crockett back when Welcome To Hard Times came out. We got to talkin’ about songwriters, the Texas songwriter legacy, and he told me point blank that you were one of the finest songwriters to come out of Texas this generation. And he wasn’t talkin’ in hyperbole. He legitimately meant that. For you to be in a position to carry on that legacy, propel it through the 21st Century– is that something that you’re aware of? That you’re a part of doing that? Because I believe that you are. And I believe that you’re carryin’ that load rather well.
That’s extremely flattering– and I’d love to agree with that, but I don’t see myself that way. I’m just tryin’ to write good songs. I really appreciate the comparison because those people are my heroes– Townes [Van Zandt] and Guy Clark and Blaze [Foley] and John Prine. When somebody like Charley Crockett says something like that about you, it’s really flattering because I have all the respect in the world for him. I think there’s a lot of singer-songwriters out there that are not gettin’ their due and they’re not gettin’ the respect that they deserve. We all work hard at it, but I’ve been lucky enough to have some really good opportunities come my way. And that’s not lost on me whatsoever.
Vince Neil Emerson, the album, closes out with “Saddled Up and Tamed”. It’s just a great dance song, and it sounds like you’re having the time of your life on that recording! Are you having the time of your life now?
(Laughs) Oh yeah, man, for sure!
What do you think the next step’s gonna be?
Well, I’m still writing. Writin’ for the next one! And whenever we can get back on the road, that’s where I want to be!