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PLENTY OF PLACES

Riddy Arman looks like Montana and speaks like Ohio, but she sings like every place in-between.

The country and folk singer-songwriter, who gained popularity with her heartfelt storytelling in her 2021 video, “Spirits, Angels, and Lies,” is exceptionally good at covering ground. In my attempts to sit down with her over the past month, we’ve covered three states and over 4,000 miles, from a festival at the Santa Barbara polo fields to the Ryman Auditorium for her label-mate Colter Wall’s sold-out debut, to a packed show at The Basement, and finally on the phone as she drove over a snowy Continental Divide to get her favorite lace-up ropers resoled.

The first day I met Arman, she was wearing a vintage pearl snap shirt, a waxed work coat, dark rigid denim jeans, and a felt hat. She’s tall and willowy like her Midwestern roots, with large hazel eyes and golden brown hair. She greeted me with a generous hug, “It’s so nice to meet you!” She was accompanied by her stout and bearded overall-sporting manager Travis Blankenship, who’s immediately intimidating but quickly endearing, later handing me a bitters and soda with a kind smile.

Blankenship (or better known by his nickname “Rural Sultan”) is one-half of the independent label La Honda Records, along with creative director Connie Collingsworth. Arman released her self-titled debut album Riddy Arman with the label in the summer of 2021. She has a warm and earthy alto voice reminiscent of Gillian Welch, and her writing leans heavily into influences like Emmylou Harris and Neil Young (specifically his Harvest Moon album). She is the most recent addition to the label’s roster, which includes Colter Wall, The Local Honeys, and Vincent Neil Emerson. The label is an outlier in its configuration, prioritizing artists’ geographic identities over proximity, booting the common music industry standard that “you must be present to win.” Whereas many musicians, especially during the start of their careers, opt to live in music-centric cities such as Nashville, Austin, LA, or New York, La Honda affords its artists flexibility. Colter Wall lives in Saskatchewan, The Local Honeys in Kentucky, Emerson in Texas, and Arman in northern Montana.

Riddy at her home in the Mission Valley of Montana. Photo by Joseph Haeberle

Arman has proactively chosen to live in rural spaces for over a decade. While her songwriting oscillates between themes of nature, relationships, and humor, there is one commonality in all of her music–an overwhelming sense of place. Many of the songwriting greats share this conviction, like Dolly Parton with “My Tennessee Mountain Home,” Townes Van Zandt’s “Colorado Girl,” Emmylou Harris’ “Montana Cowgirl,” or Guy Clark’s “L.A. Freeway.” The prioritization of place over convenience is a fundamental part of Arman’s identity.

“If I lived in Nashville it would be cheaper to fly, quicker, and I’d be playing a lot more gigs, but my mental health would be so poor,” says Arman. “I’m more creative and inspired living in Montana. All of my inspiration comes from nature.” Her lyrics reference dense groves of hawthorn trees, deep washes, timothy grass, arrowleaf balsamroot, the Maumee River, and other vocabulary that is tied directly to a particular place, an undeniable part of her songwriting DNA.

I’ve gathered all day pushing pairs up this draw
Through the hawthorn trees
I send a yip and a howl

However, it’s not all romanticized picturesque scenes. Even in her most seemingly touching or dramatic songs, she keeps a sense of pragmatic humor, like in “Both of My Hands” admitting “I have not dealt with the sign of mice” in her old farmhouse, or “Herding Song,” in which she good-naturedly refers to her boots “that haven’t seen horse shit in weeks, and it’s just the city that stinks.” She sings about the isolation of rural places, the sense of awe in enveloping landscapes, animal husbandry, and the frustrations that accompany her, always taken in stride with her hardy laugh. Arman is one of those writers whose personal story you can learn a lot about by taking a close listen to her songs. Landscapes punctuate almost everything she writes, and the three rural homes that have defined her life are the Ohio River Valley, Virginia, and Montana.

OHIO RIVER VALLEY

Arman was raised in the town of Maumee, Ohio, in close proximity to Lake Erie and Toledo, where she grew up fishing, hunting, and riding horses. The two constants in her life were the outdoors and music. “My parents always had music playing, my dad would blast music in the car like a teenager with the windows down. Music was really important.” Her parents played a steady stream of folk, motown, blues, and R&B by Etta James, Sharon Jones, Bessie Smith, and The Temptations. Arman’s earliest exposure to country music came from being a “4H kid”–she idolized the older girls at the barn who listened to Shania Twain, the Dixie Chicks, and LeeAnn Rimes. “The first show I ever saw was Tracey Byrd at the Lucas County Fair.”

Her other love was nature. “I grew up right on the Maumee River. Rivers and bodies of water are super important to me. We grew up going to the Great Lakes. I loved growing up because I was one of those kids that was thrown outside and the door was shut behind us. I spent a lot of time playing out in the woods and down by the river.”

In addition to being a fixture of her childhood, the Maumee would also be a landmark during a painful period in her life. In 2003 her father was admitted into a hospice care facility that was adjacent to both a railroad and the Maumee. Arman wrote about the experience in her well-received song “Spirits, Angels, and Lies,” in which she describes how her father, while in hospice, had a vision that Johnny Cash visited his bedside late at night and asked her father to leave with him on a freight train. He declined so he could stay with his family.

He said, ‘You won’t believe who came to my bedside,
Johnny Cash on a freight train, sometime in the night
Well, he wanted me to go along for a ride
But, I told him I would stay for my children and my wife

After sharing his experience with his wife the following morning, breaking news came on the television that Johnny Cash had died during the night. Initially, Arman’s mother was shaken by what she interpreted as a coincidence, but the nurses reassured her that unexplainable things often happen before someone dies. “The experience was beyond anything that Catholicism had taught my mom. It really changed her perspective on the human experience and death and life.”

Arman’s father died exactly one month later next to the Maumee.

VIRGINIA

In 2012, Arman moved to a 500-acre property in Dillwyn, Virginia, where arguably the most important part of her experience was boredom. Her friend had inherited the land from his father who had purchased the property after serving in the Vietnam War. “We moved there to start a small farm. We didn’t know what we were doing [laughs]. I was 20 years old. This was before smartphones were popular, and the service was bad. I had a ton of time to think and write and play and be creative.”

Photos by Joseph Haeberle.

This uninterrupted time also gave her the opportunity to observe. “I was paying attention and really studying the trees and the flora and fauna of the area.” She watched the vivid cardinals living in the oak trees and the barred owls throughout the property. Arman started studying plant medicine and herbalism. “The forests were so lush in that area of Virginia, I was really connected to that place, and I just started writing about it. It was very comforting at the time. I have a lot of music [from that time] that no one will probably hear.”

Not only did Virginia give her the environment (figuratively and literally) to work on her songwriting craft, it also was a decisive time for developing her style. Landscapes became a focal point in her writing. “My imagery became very detailed for specific plants or trees. Now, I will often have animal or plant references in my songs that if you know that particular plant or animal, you will know [geographically] where it took place.”

Though this songwriting emphasis on the natural world began while she lived in Virginia, no place did it become more evident than during her time in the West.

MONTANA

The first time Arman came to Montana was to watch after her friend’s herd of Herefords, and “keep his pigs in a line.” She spent time in the sweeping Mission Valley, and in 2019 decided to make it her home. For Arman, “I feel the most at peace with myself under the Montana sky.”

Photos by Joseph Haeberle.

She quickly found work as a ranch hand. “I was my boss’s right hand woman. I learned a ton. I calved with him, hayed, irrigated, branded, the full works.” She moved to the ranch and rented an old farmhouse built in the 1930s off of the Flathead River, “It’s a white house with a green tin roof… my window overlooks the Flathead and I sit there and write.”

Her songs continued to reflect the landscape. She wrote “Barbed Wire” when she was thinking about the marketability of barbed wire during the time of the Homestead Act, reflecting on the effect it had on “animal migration, land ownership, and cowboying.”

Our pasture was unbounded until this showed up
Lighter than air, stronger than whiskey, and cheaper than dust

While many of her songs praised rural living, she is also acutely aware of its challenges, especially the isolation. “Both of My Hands” is her most poignant example, a portrait of loneliness. “I wrote that song when I was working 12 to 14 hours a day as a ranch hand, leaving in the dark and coming home in the dark. I didn’t really have any time besides to sit down for a little bit and play guitar. I was using alcohol as a means to distract myself from the hardship.”

The view from Arman’s home in the Mission Valley of Montana. Photos by Joseph Haeberle.

Bedsheets on the windows
While I sleep on the ground

Well, the dogs keep yellin’
Like there’s something around

And I pass the bottle around
To both of my hands
There’s a stillness in the air
That makes me wanna drown

“I love living alone, but it really compounds when all you’re doing is working hard… Something I think about a lot is how folks who live rurally and work in agriculture get married really young. It makes a lot of sense to me. There’s a lot more duties and tasks than living out of a city. There’s more maintenance that needs to be done on your land and your home. You’re working harder and working longer. It’s nice to share the good moments with someone.”

Arman’s home in the Mission Valley of Montana. Photos by Joseph Haeberle.

Arman’s songwriting lows are lower and her highs are higher because she draws from actual experience. This is part of what makes her so compelling as an artist. For each moment of despair, there are two doses of hope, and she’s able to navigate frustrations by fostering a deep appreciation of the land. One of my favorite examples of this is “Old Maid’s Draw,” which describes a draw in a pasture at a ranch where Riddy worked in western Montana. It not only has vivid imagery, but her vocal performance is ethereally stunning. The song is an exceptional example of creating a sense of place.

“It’s called ‘Old Maid’s Draw’ because an old woman lived up there in the early 1900s, at a time when women weren’t even single, let alone living alone,” explains Arman. “Her name was Maggie Crowley. The rhubarb that I talk about ‘coming out of the rocks’ is the rhubarb that Maggie must have planted. It grows out of the rock piles that she had chosen to make as farm plots as well as out of her old stone foundation.

I wrote it after my boss and I rode up there for a day gathering. Neither of us had dogs, the cows are so smart, and they have their babies with them. There are dense hawthorn tree patches, and all these little game trails that will dip off of the draw. Anyways, once we got them up there, it’s just this gorgeous lush grass, and balsamroot arrowleaf I swear that is knee-high. I got home that night and wrote this song and reflected on how beautiful it was.”

Up the Old Maid’s Draw where the grass is green
The wolves a little mean and the arrowleaf tall
Where the meadowlarks sing through the cows bellowing
And the rhubarb grows out of rocks

It’s also a song with a distinctive stylized yodel that is both powerful and incredibly feminine. What made her choose that phrasing for this song? “It came from work. We worked the cows as quietly as possible at that ranch, but when they are all lodged up in the hawthorn trees you’ve got to kind of scare them out. So I developed this method of yipping at them like coyotes [laughs], and it was highly effective. So we both started using it.”

Riddy, in her kitchen in the Mission Valley of Montana. Photos by Joseph Haeberle.

This distinctive sound came from working–work that is regionally specific to a remote draw in western Montana. When Arman writes a song, it’s not formulaic. It’s not two or three people in a writing room, passing around hooks, and working with a producer. Of course there is value to this collaborative and focused approach to songwriting, but it’s rarely as personal. Save for her cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night,” every song on Riddy Arman is autobiographical. Her strong sense of place is the root of her music, and that’s exactly what makes it so intimate. It’s hard to imagine Arman writing about anything else besides what she has personally experienced. That’s the soul of her songwriting.

It’s also why sometimes it’s worth not living in Nashville.

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