Rachel Ammons is a DIYer in music, merch, and ethos, titling her first solo album No Man Band after her one-man-band playing style. On the EP, as well as when performing live, she simultaneously plays her instruments, including guitar, banjo, bass drum, high hats, harmonica, and vocals. In a single day, Jordan Trotter, the sound engineer at White Water Tavern, recorded the five-track EP live at his home recording studio. The crisp and clean production includes no overdubbing or looping. The result is a raucous, raw, and rocking sound fitting of Ammons’ galvanizing and storytelling lyrics.
Ammons experienced her share of the blues after the illness and subsequent passing of her bandmate, roommate, friend, and mentor, Smilin’ Bob Lewis in August 2019. Ammons joined Smilin’ Bob’s one-man-band to form Tyrannosaurus Chicken in 2009 and now carries the torch with her own band of one. Though Ammons brings from Tyrannosaurus Chicken the heartbeat rhythms, unorthodox instrumentation, and Delta Blues sound, a newfound edge and urgency emerge with No Man Band. Another notable difference is the lack of violin, substituted with electric guitar and banjo.
Ammons aptly characterizes her sound as “passionate, moody, determined, and rebellious with good intention,” hoping her songs will help people experience clarity and know “things will be alright.” The more I listen, the more I realize I could dig endlessly into each song’s lyrics and still not grasp all of the nuances. During a phone interview in February, Ammons spent close to two hours elaborating on her process and explaining the stories behind each new song. Ammons explains, “My songs are often a collage of different thoughts and feelings, combined into one general idea.” Her songwriting process often involves synchronizing multiple storylines based around a similar theme.
No Man Band opens with a hauntingly familiar story of hopelessness and addiction. To my surprise, Ammons described her inspiration for “Red Dress” from a Reader’s Digest article about a female school bus driver, entering her fifties and unable ever to have children, feeling unfulfilled with her life. The woman’s friend suggested trying a substance that ruined her life, causing her to turn to prostitution. The woman was put on an unrealistic “18-month waiting list for admittance to a free public rehab facility.” Ammons explains her idea with the song was to “humanize a person who made a bad choice.”
“Bipolar Schizophrenia” starts with Ammons’ delight for the absence of an abhorrent manipulator in her life. The song continues by describing a woman who used a supposed “bipolar schizophrenic” diagnosis as an excuse for genuinely evil behavior, including the death of the woman’s child. The lyrics explain, “You twist the truth, so crazily, it’s plain to see that you don’t care for right or wrong. You’re like a greedy, evil, global corporation’s politician, making decisions for your hidden reason, special interest influences. But you’re ‘bipolar schizophrenic,’ you get sick, you get manic, and the voices tell you to do what you want to.” The song’s antagonist uses her diagnosis as justification for her behavior as opposed to describing an actual clinical diagnosis. Ammons’ lyrics are affected and passionate, expressing her glee for the imprisonment of a toxic woman in her [real] life.
“No Two Ways” is the most uplifting and folky song on the album, featuring banjo instead of an electric guitar. Ammons says, “It’s about a feeling–hopelessness. It’s a stream of consciousness that happened one night when I was feeling low, playing banjo in a garage, coming up with the lyrics as I went. It started out with the little hurts people experience [can’t pay the bills] and continues onto inevitable big hurts [sick parents]. It goes on to how that feeling leads to repeating coping mechanisms like knowingly staying in unhealthy relationships for their comfort or could even mean other types of addiction.” The final line of the song states, “there ain’t no two ways about it, I know it’s wrong,” describing the narrator knowingly continuing the loop of bad habits.
Hearing Ammons’ explanation of “Love Me” not only altered my original interpretation of the song but also how I see some of my past romantic relationships. “I feel like I’m talking as if I’m another person on the album. I had to write the song to get the memory of the feeling out of my head of being on a date with a guy I had only recently started seeing who said, in response to a small argument I can’t even remember, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you.’ I immediately felt like he instead meant, ‘love me, love me, love me.’ With the word ‘love’ being more about the guy, who hardly knew me, using the idea of me as some empathetic experience for love. While I can sympathize with the desire to be loved, I don’t think you can love someone without knowing them but, more importantly, without knowing yourself.” The song bounces between the partner’s two voices, Ammons’ view of her date’s self-serving quest to be loved and the partner’s voice in the chorus, relentlessly repeating, “love me, love me, love me.”
The only song on the EP recorded in a single take, “Guitar Off the Wall,” is the most accessible and triumphant, encouraging listeners to embrace their strengths and not be held back by other people and pressures. Ammons posits the song is about “taking what you want, what gives you agency and happiness because life will force you into action if you don’t. You don’t have to stand for negative people in your life, and you can do for yourself. Leave those negative relationships holding you back.” The song’s chorus righteously exclaims what Ammons has done with No Man Band; “I’m going to take my guitar off the wall, and I’m going to use it.”
To hear No Man Band for yourself, a physical copy of EP is available for purchase through her website. With social distancing in place, Ammons is taking a step back from touring. She will be doing a Livestream performance at the Deepwood House this Friday, March 27th, at 7:30 (CDT).
Photo credit: Matt Snider Photography