The title fits — making a sentence like The Suicide Commandos Make A Record, for the lack of a better local example– because through eleven tunes Fletcher Magellan finds himself rejected, dejected, rendered homeless and hanged. A stranger indeed.
We can’t help but think of Hank Williams’ ironically familiar “I’m a Stranger Here” which, were it not for his black mare, would be about as timeless as a country tune can be. Some of the songs on Became A Stranger are just as anchored by details, while others have an any time/any place quality. At its best the disc is a thumb-burning collection of short stories, and even at its worst a success: an inventive pastiche of the country tradition, somewhere between friendly Tex Ritter and brooding “cosmic American music.”
We’ve heard a few of Fletcher Magellan’s songs so many times over several years they’ve become familiar, but they haven’t sounded as rounded out as on this new album. By day Fletcher Magellan is Cody Fitzpatrick, Old Fashioned Records engineer and drummer for the apparently defunct circus troupe El Le Faunt. His studio skills come in handy throughout the self-produced album, which relies on a variety of instrumentation to paint the scenery.
The album’s most enjoyable period piece is “Olive Green,” which finds Fletcher falling for a lady blacksmith. It’s also the only happy ending to be found in Became A Stranger. Arranged around nearly every trail song cliche known — pay attention to what drummer Jordan Hedlund is doing in this tune, not to mention the guitar line Don Rich would have loved –Fitzpatrick’s delivery is rightfully wry. This gem of a tune reminds us you can still teach an old dog new tricks.
Where “Olive Green” rides like a lighter trail song from the Marty Robbins catalog, “His Right Hand” is a darker western tale, more Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven than John Huston’s. The presence of these songs, some set in the 1970s as surely as the 1870s, lends a timeless quality to other songs like “Larry’s Lament,” which finds Fitzpatrick singing the line which we used to open this post.
You can hear the whole album on Bandcamp here after its release this weekend, and the songs work best together rather than singled out, again like a collection of short stories. On of our favorites is “Grant’s Farm,” apparently an eminent domain dispute which leads to a presumed assault on Ulysses S. Grant. Like “Olive Green” it’s a little tongue in cheek, but entertainingly set. The honky tonk piano played by Marc Bromaghim is especially helpful in setting the scene.
Written with John Prine’s self-depreciating swagger, the solo song “Like to Think” might serve as a suitable epitaph for the various outcasts and outlaws on Became A Stranger. Some are likable, some not so much. “I like to think I’m better above ground,” sings Fitzpatrick in its last verse, “But uncertainty clings to me with the whole world crumbling down / I like to think I’m better above ground.” So much is the fate of Charles Guiteau, hardly a household name today but once, through the winter of 1881-2, just about the most despised bastard in America during the winter of 1881 as President James Garfield lay dying from the bullet Guiteau placed in his back.
Fitzpatrick is not the fist to write a song about the assassin — the earliest recorded version appears on Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music — but his is one of the kindest, clinging closely to Guiteau’s death poem. Whatever the reason for his affection, the spiritual serves as a farewell for Fletcher Magellan, who heads somewhere else after these eleven songs we suppose.
We read over breakfast about the FBI’s arrest of those occupying Federal property on a national wildlife refuge in Oregon. At least one of the anti-government activists (read: domestic terrorist) was killed. Not really so different from Charles Guiteau or the would-be assassin in Fletcher Magellan’s “Grant’s Farm,” Robert LaVoy Finicum lived by the gun and died by it, like a character from the old west. Somewhere under his zealotry there’s a story, and there’s a longstanding tradition of telling those stories through song here in America. Like nearly everyone else in this country, we won’t mourn Finicum’s death, but rather the circumstances he created which led to the end of the standoff last night. Some people write songs about the old west, and others are trying to bring us back to there.
We’re proud of our friend for finishing his album after all his hard work. There’s a sense that Became a Stranger is a labor of love — not just for the settings of its eleven songs, but the great arch of country music from its early roots in string tunes like Kelly Harrell’s “Charles Guitteau,” recorded in 1927, to its revival as “Americana.” Fitzgerald’s Fletcher Magellan isn’t likely to let the grass grow under his feet, but there’s no doubt he hasn’t told his tale.