On Grant-Lee Phillips' 'The Narrows,' A Troubadour Looks Into His Ancestry Whether as the Gilmore Girls town troubadour or as a solo musician, Phillips tells powerful stories through his music. His most recent album explores his family history and Native American heritage.

On Grant-Lee Phillips' 'The Narrows,' A Troubadour Looks Into His Ancestry

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GRANT-LEE PHILLIPS: This is Grant-Lee Phillips. I'm here in Nashville, Tenn. Sometimes you'll find me stage right. Sometimes you'll find me leaning up an old oak tree, maybe leaning against a lamp post on a show called the "Gilmore Girls." So I have sort of a Zelig existence, part of being a troubadour.


Grant-Lee Phillips was a television troubadour on the "Gilmore Girls" back in the early to mid-2000s, and now once more as Netflix reboots that show, and yet again on a new album called "The Narrows."


MARTIN: A troubadour is a storyteller. And you're a musician, but you tell stories. So in that spirit, can you point us to a cut on this album that you think is just a really good story?

PHILLIPS: Sure. I pull stories from history. I also find that there are great stories to be explored in family history, and so I'm always fascinated with ancestry and lineage. The song "Moccasin Creek" is one of those. You know, I venture back to the place where my dad was born in Arkansas, Little Hollow. And there's a lyric that goes like this - go down to the Narrows where the water picks up. And that's where the title of this album came from, that part of the river that is treacherous and seeks to pull you under, and you've got to do all you can to keep your head above water. And that's sort of the - you know, the metaphor. There are times in life like that.


PHILLIPS: (Singing) I want to go back there, to the home of my kin, where there's an old rock house on a mountain so steep. And one of these days, I'm going to dip my feet in Moccasin Creek.

MARTIN: Your previous album, "Walking In The Green Corn," was also about your search into your ancestry.


MARTIN: Was there a particular point in your life when you started to look at the past and where your family came from and start to explore questions around that?

PHILLIPS: I think some of it had to do with becoming a father. I now have an 8-year-old daughter. And when that happened, I felt like I wanted to understand where I came from, where our family came from, and be able to provide her with that rooting, you know? So that she could walk into the future knowing just how deep her roots go.

MARTIN: What have you told her about where your family comes from? 'Cause 8's a particular kind of age. Like, your family story is, you know, it's complicated. Your family originates from native tribes, and - how do you tell an 8-year-old the story of your family roots?

PHILLIPS: Well, I suppose it's a little bit like drawing. You begin with stick figures, large outlines. And there are a lot of resources these days that are available, you know? Even apps where one can learn some very rudimentary language, some Muskogee keywords, for instance.

MARTIN: Oh, really?

PHILLIPS: So when she was very young - you know, maybe like 5 or 6 - we were using those kind of things, you know? And it really sticks, too, 'cause kids are little sponges in that way. And we went to powwows together, basically tried to walk through that road of discovery together.


PHILLIPS: (Singing) Kept on walking 'til my feet were bloody, left everything we knew. When they took us across the Mississippi, nothing that I could do.

MARTIN: This one is called "Cry Cry."


PHILLIPS: (Singing) Cry.

MARTIN: We hear in that song some echoes of what we were talking about, themes of Native American history and that family experience. How did this song come together?

PHILLIPS: Well, the Trail of Tears is something that I've been fascinated with for a long time. It's one of those chapters, you know, one of those major chapters from our history we don't encounter in high school, generally speaking. You know, you have to seek it out to understand it, you know? And that idea, being severed from one's home and one's culture, language, all of that - I'm a descendant of those who did walk the Trail of Tears, and living here in Tennessee, you know, you can see those places where the trail actually wound its way, you know? So it's hard not to put myself in that mindset, trying to imagine what that would have been like.


MARTIN: Here's another song that caught my eye on the album, even before I played it, just because of the title. It's called "Taking On Weight In Hot Springs."


MARTIN: There's something happening, something going down in Hot Springs.

PHILLIPS: Yeah, it's sort of a road trip, you know?


PHILLIPS: The desire to get off the grid. And I suppose this song is set in another time, you know? It feels as though it's in the present, but that present is probably a very sepia-tone...


PHILLIPS: ...Kind of place (laughter). You know, a place where gangsters would flock to away from it all.


PHILLIPS: (Singing). Make lot of friends in Hot Springs slumming at the (unintelligible) shore, where gamblers from Chicago had some run-in with the law.

MARTIN: Do you ever feel like you were born in the wrong era?

PHILLIPS: Wow, yeah, most certainly. I must be, I don't know - somehow, I was plopped down at the wrong time. Or maybe it's the right time, I'm not sure. Imagery comes from a combination of experience and imagination - all of it, you know? I think in some ways, that's sort of what songs do for us. They - it allows us to have empathy and put ourselves in someone else's skin for a minute.

MARTIN: Is there another song on the album that you think speaks to that empathy?

PHILLIPS: Yeah. You know, I mean, at the end of 2013, shortly after I had moved to Nashville, my dad - his health plummeted, and he passed away in November of that year.

MARTIN: I'm sorry.

PHILLIPS: There was a song that I was working on and it had remained unfinished, and I completed it in the few hours before he passed. And - but I watched him face his mortality with grace and acceptance, and I wrote this song called "Smoke And Sparks" for him.


PHILLIPS: (Singing) And come that day, I won't be afraid. I'll rise from the flames.

MARTIN: Did your daughter get to spend much time with your dad?

PHILLIPS: Just a little bit. You know, maybe these songs will help her one day to understand all this. You know, it's tough.

MARTIN: The new album is called "The Narrows." Grant-Lee Phillips joined us from Nashville, Tenn. Grant-Lee, thanks so much for taking the time.

PHILLIPS: Thank you so much. My pleasure.


PHILLIPS: (Singing) Like smoke and sparks.

MARTIN: B.J. Leiderman wrote our theme music. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.


PHILLIPS: (Singing) The way that it is will disappear on the day I am gone.

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