Eastern Oregon seems to be bringing in a steady stream of artists and musicians these days. The latest transplant to the area is Lincoln Barr, the singer-songwriter force behind the Seattle-based band Red Jacket Mine. Although his residency is temporary — his relocation was driven by his wife’s two year clinical rotation at Good Shepherd Hospital — Barr looks forward to planting some roots in the region and actively participating in its artistic community.
Born and raised in Mississippi and inspired by Nirvana to pick up a guitar, Lincoln cut his teeth in music by performing in praise groups at his Pentecostal Church. Upon turning 18, Barr started to seriously pursue the craft of songwriting. Inspired by lo-fi heroes Elliott Smith and Guided By Voices, Barr bought a 4-track tape recorder in the early 2000s. By the summer of 2003 Barr was living in Seattle and had amassed enough material worthy of building a band around.
“I was really self-conscious of coming off as a ‘singer-songwriter’ at the time,” says Barr. “It reminded me of that Morrisey quote, ‘I thought if you had an acoustic guitar it meant you were a protest singer.’”
So Barr started Red Jacket Mine as a vehicle to perform his songs. Although they were a band in the sense that arrangements and administrative duties were collectively handled, Barr remained the driving vision of the group. Over the course of three albums and numerous singles and EPs, Red Jacket Mine’s output evolved from jangly power pop to a sardonic and sophisticated pop style reminiscent of Elvis Costello and Steely Dan. They also worked with a lineup of high profile veteran producers from the Pacific Northwest including Jack Endino, Ken Stringfellow (of The Posies and Big Star) and Johnny Sangster.
Lincoln’s recently released debut solo album “Trembling Frames” thrusts his stylistic trajectory ever forward toward jazz standards. Featuring a notable lineup of musicians that includes John Convertino (drummer/percussionist of Tuscon’s Calexico), Dan Walker (keyboardist of Red Jacket Mine), New York-based reed player Levon Henry, and Seattle jazz vibraphonist Susan Pascal, Trembling Frames “deconstructs standards in order to see what makes them tick,” as Barr puts it. The songs on the record evoke torch ballads that Julie London or Blossom Dearie might sing. It also explores lyrical territory more personal than Barr has mapped before, delving into themes of depression and self-doubt, though a casual listen wouldn’t make that apparent as the lush instrumentation and harmonies throughout the record capture the ears first.
Barr is now turning his attention towards film scoring. Although he has contributed previously recorded material to soundtracks before, “The Past Is Never Dead,” by St. Louis documentarian Steve Turner is the first film that he has actively composed pieces for. Reassembling many of the same players from Trembling Frames, Barr and company improvised off of a collection of melodic themes, which results in a set of moody and undulating instrumental pieces that align with the narrative of the film.
“The Past Is Never Dead” follows the story David Lee Robinson, who has been imprisoned for murder in Missouri for 17 years. The circumstances surrounding his conviction are rather dubious: There was never any physical evidence only a testimony by a witness who later recanted under 13 counts of perjury. Additionally, an inmate within the Missouri prison system separately confessed to Robinson’s crime though that inmate is now deceased. Robinson is now represented by Brian Cave Law Firm and his case is in front of the Missouri Supreme Court. The legal saga of Robinson, a black man from the segregated community of Sikeston, highlights the racial disparities of the justice system of which the public is continually more exposed to with each passing news cycle.
Despite the experimental leanings of his soundtrack work, Barr’s solo performances stick to tried and true troubadour territory, standing in defiance of his earlier apprehension about being a “singer-songwriter.” His sets typically revolve around songs from Trembling Frames, select Red Jacket Mine numbers and a few choice covers. It will be interesting to see how a year or two of living in Eastern Oregon will influence his work.
Barr performs at Echo Ridge Cellars on Saturday, May 27.
James Dean Kindle is the East Oregonian’s entertainment columnist, the executive director of the Oregon East Symphony and a Pendleton musician. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.