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Photo by Thomas Crabtree

Golden Crystal Kingdom:

A Q&A with Vincent Neil Emerson

By Anna LoPinto

January 17, 2024

“Play David Allan Coe!” a man jeered from an otherwise courteous crowd. The collective eye roll was palpable.

The Exit/In in Nashville, a storied music venue with an impressive pedigree of championing artists, including Etta James, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and Jimmy Buffett, is known for spotting talent. The room was pulsating with excitement to see 31-year-old singer-songwriter, Vincent Neil Emerson.

The Texas-born artist wore a chocolate-colored cowboy hat, a hawk feather neatly tucked in the hatband, a denim shirt over denim pants, and suede Olathe boots. He paused and addressed the heckler. “Didn’t I tell you to wait in the car?” The crowd giggled in approval. “Minivan. Sorry,” he continued with a sly smile.

Emerson has that enviable ease of redirecting energy. He continued on with his Red Horse Band, bringing a tasteful country groove of the likes of Don Williams and Jerry Reed balanced with the songwriting sentimentality of his beloved Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark.

As his career continues to take off, Emerson’s personal growth appears to also be on super speed. He is on the tail end of a headlining tour with dozens of sold-out dates, and his list of fans includes peers (Charley Crockett), predecessors (Rodney Crowell), and mega stars (Post Malone). Off the road, he is celebrating a new marriage and a new home. It feels like he is one step closer to self-actualization.

Post-show, backstage, Emerson was gracious and quiet–smoking cigarettes outside with his band, proudly showing his guitars to his friends, and willingly fulfilling his end-of-day obligations with his management team.“He could be mean, and he’s not,” said Connie Collingsworth, the co-founder of Emerson’s label, La Honda Records. “He isn’t hard or jaded, and there is a lot he has seen.” With a life punctuated by loss, he chooses optimism instead of cynicism.

A week after his Nashville show, we sat down with Emerson to talk about the process of creating his new album, the limits of assumptions, and his dramatic personal evolution. 

In the title track song, “Golden Crystal Kingdom,” you sing, “I wish I was back in my Texas home, I’d rather sing this song at the Country Store.” There are so many great and prolific writers that come out of Texas, and that region can have such a distinctive sound. How do you think your upbringing in eastern Texas has guided you as an artist? 

I spent part of my childhood growing up in East Texas. And then some of it, my mom moved us around the state, to Dallas and Fort Worth and the outskirts here and there. We lived all over. Texas musicians have inspired and influenced me. Guys like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, and Steve Earle. And now, I’ve been able to meet and hang with some of them. It’s been heavy on me as an artist.

You have a robust musical education. Did that start in childhood? 

My relationship with music and taking in songwriting came a little later on in my teen years when I was 17 or 18. I’d listen to Bob Dylan and Woodie Guthrie. I found Townes and Guy Clark when I was 20 or 21. But once you find one of ‘em you find the rest. It’s like knocking over the first domino. 

One thing I really appreciate about you as a communicator–that I noticed during your Nashville show–is that you can be very tactful but very direct. I was really impressed by how you were able to redirect energy, especially if you had disruptive folks in the audience. How are you able to do that? Communicate well, but still have a sense of humor while you do it.

Well, I'm not always that great at it. I appreciate you saying that. Some nights are better than others, but I think I'm just trying to make the show go smoothly. So you try to deflect it with humor or just move on and just hit 'em with more music. So I guess I've learned that over the years, just dealing with crazy people, and opening up for other acts–I had to deal with that a lot.

You’ve had a lot to navigate in your life. You lost a brother and your father. You’ve had some significant hardships. How has that shaped you as an artist or even as a human? 

People go through stuff like that in life, and it definitely shapes you into who you are. I think sometimes it can make you wiser, or it can make you a little more wary of your surroundings. I think I had a hard time dealing with a lot of that stuff growing up, and I didn't really have an outlet to handle those emotions. So when I found songwriting, it was like a journal but also creative and positive. Songwriting can be very cathartic, and you can channel those emotions into something that can ultimately bring you happiness or connection with other people. At the end of the day, that’s all I ever wanted as a kid was a connection with people and a community. In music, I found that in such a beautiful way.

You seem to be in such a growth mindset. I know that we hardly know each other, we’ve only met a handful of times–but since seeing you last month at your Exit/In show to about a year ago at the Basement East–I feel like you’re on a really positive trajectory. Both in your music, your writing, and as a person. Is there any validity to that? Or am I making drastic assumptions?

No, you’re right. I think when I started making music, I was in my late teens and early twenties. I wrote most of those songs from my first record around that time. And I was a whole different person. I was a kid. I was a child, pretty much. I was naive, and I was an idiot. Now I have a record of that, and I have to carry that shit around with me. So from that first one to the second one to where I'm at now, there's definitely growth, and I'd like to think that personal growth as a person, too.

It’s interesting how each album, or even each song, is a moment in time. And as artists keep evolving and changing, they have a very public history of that process. For you, this most recent,
The Golden Crystal Kingdom, what moment in time does that represent?

I never think about it in those terms. From song to song, I could probably answer that a little easier. It would be “Time of the Rambler.” I'm looking back at my early days of sleeping in my car, trying to make music when I was a kid. We were playing a lot of honky tonks.

In the title track of the new album you have lyrics like “well they dress up in their finest western clothes,” and “ain’t it funny how their jewelry turns to rust.” Do you think there’s a level of superficiality in the contemporary honky tonk culture at times?

Yeah, sure. I was thinking about that. As country music has been growing in popularity, there's a lot of people out there who are kind of wanting to jump on the bandwagon. I don't want to put anybody down, but it can be easy to spot. I can get frustrated because what I love about country music isn’t just the culture and the fashion and all of that shit, but the music itself and the songwriting. It means a lot to me.

Photos by Thomas Crabtree

Yes, definitely. I think all of us can be distracted by the aesthetic of it all. There is an undeniable romanticism to this kind of music. And there’s value in that, but you don't want to get too focused on the superficial and get away from the root of this music, which, historically,  was often about working people and rural landscapes.

Leaning into the idea of landscapes, you mention the natural world quite a bit in this album, in songs like “Blackland Prairies,” “On the Banks of the Old Guadalupe,” or “Clover on the Hillside.”

In the song “I’ll Meet You in Montana,” you have the line, “I have been defined by the places that I have been.” Are there certain environments that have greatly defined you?

When I wrote that line specifically, I was thinking about how where you are from is not the only thing that should define somebody. When you meet someone and they ask you where you’re from, it’s because they’re trying to form an opinion about who you are. It might be negative or positive, but I don’t think that’s a question you should ask somebody off the bat.

I think you should get to know somebody really and talk to them before you start to form opinions like that. Growing up in East Texas, I might tell somebody I'm from East Texas and they say, “Oh, well you must be a redneck.” But they don't know that my family is Native on my mother’s side. 

Is your Indigenous heritage a part of your identity you’ve been exploring more?

Yeah, so I'm from the Choctaw-Apache Tribe of Ebarb in Louisiana. The last record I put out, I wrote a song about the history of our tribe. So, I got to share a little bit more about my background with my audience, which is cool. This album is not really touching on my Native roots as much as that song did, but the “Little Wolf's” tune is a Native theme. And I think that's one of the stronger songs on the album, too.

Vincent, that song was moving live, but the music video for “Little Wolf’s Invincible Yellow Medicine Paint” is also stunning. Can you share a bit about the process? 

I wish I could take credit for it, but it's actually a guy named Mike Vanata from Western AF who shot it, directed it and came up with the idea for it. He lives in Laramie, Wyoming, kind of near the Wind River Reservation. He’s got some friends that do Indian Relay racing, which is bareback horse racing. He had the idea of getting Sharmaine Weed to star in the video. I think it turned out great. Mike did a good job.

Earlier, when I asked if there was a specific “moment in time” for this album–you shared that “Time of The Rambler” was a good representation. I was listening to an episode of the “Hippies and Cowboys Podcast” you were on in 2020. When the conversation turned to the concept of drifters or ramblers, you had such an insightful and refreshing response. With a good sense of humor, you said, “I love how we sing about being drifters and ramblers… but I can’t think of anything that can be more structured than being a touring musician.” Referencing the organized schedule and timeline on the road. So, what is your idea of a true rambler?

I was kind of thinking about the romanticized image of a rake or a rambling person, like somebody hopping freight trains or a hobo. One definition for the word hobo is “homeward bound,” or something like that.

That's funny you mentioned that. I still think about that quite often, how we try to romanticize ourselves and make it seem like we're ramblers, we're this or we're that. But really, a rambler was someone who, in my opinion, had no structure in their life, or maybe they were trying to find structure. They were on their way somewhere else. I've got a schedule, I got to be here on time to do this and that. With “Time of the Rambler,” I was thinking of the romanticized idea of that life. 

Have you done any of that before? Train hopping or any of those kinds of lifestyles?

I've always been a hefty boy. I've never been able to run that fast to catch a train, and they run fast as hell these days. So no, I hopped on a train one time, but I rode it like 15 feet and jumped off. I've traveled a whole lot, and I've traveled outside of making music.

But I have lived in my car before and slept in my car in the dead of winter in Fort Worth. So there's the other side of it too. Like the “Big Rock Candy Mountain” kind of line in “Time of the Rambler”. It's not all roses, it's not all romantic.

What was that time in your life? What circumstances led to your wintering in your car in Fort Worth?

I was like 21, I think. And I just had gone through a breakup with the girl. She got the apartment, and I got my car full of shit. I just drove to the only place that I knew close by, which was a bar in Fort Worth.

I ended up just sleeping in my car for a while. Then I had a buddy who helped me get gigs. I started making money. Eventually, I got an apartment, and I started making a living at this shit, which is crazy to think about now.

Is it mind-boggling to go from sleeping in your car to where you are now? That's a pretty dramatic progression, and you just keep building momentum. It reminds me of some of my favorite artists, like Dolly Parton, who grew up in east Tennessee in a two-room cabin with her family and is now one of the biggest stars in the world. How do you process that, or how do you handle that?

Yeah, I was thinking about that actually when I was in LA making this record with Shooter Jennings. He put me up at his house for the week. He's such a good guy. He told me, “Man, come stay at my place while we make this album.” Every day we’d get off of work from the studio and go back to his place and watch a movie or something and have a glass of champagne or a beer. Then at the end of the night, I would go down to the basement. He has a basement with a really nice guest bedroom.I’d look out the basement window and I could see the highway. I was watching these really fancy Ferraris and BMWs and Teslas. All these nice cars driving down the road–I’d never seen that many in a row. It made me pause, and think, “Man, it’s crazy that I’m fucking here in the Hollywood Hills making a record for RCA with Shooter Jennings.” And I thought about the time I slept in the back of my car and ate rice and beans. It’s been a huge trip. 

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