SPOTLIGHT: Rachel Baiman Creates Songs for Thanksgiving

Photo by Gina Binkley

You can probably list 10 Christmas songs off the top of your head. You can probably even think of a standard or two for Halloween, Easter, and the Fourth of July. But Thanksgiving songs are harder to come by.

It’s a quieter holiday, perhaps, centered on the pleasures of home and family and friends and food. But in that (relative) calm of Thanksgiving, singer-songwriter Rachel Baiman found plenty to harvest for a new EP named for the holiday.

Thanksgiving’s title track explores “the holiday and some of the ironies surrounding it,” Baiman says, and the other three songs, variations on the theme of home, fell into place from there. It’s also a celebration of friendship, in a way, as Baiman was able to work with musician friends in her adopted hometown of Nashville, including Molly Tuttle, Josh Oliver, Shelby Means, Justin Hiltner, and Tristan Scroggins.

The importance of people and place has been on Baiman’s mind a lot this year, between building a home (“we built walls and we installed floors”) and, this month, getting married. At times, she admits, it’s been hard to balance the joy she feels in her personal life with the worry she feels for the world around her.

“It’s this weird dichotomy of having this cloud of gloom about the way things are going in the world and all this suffering that’s happening and the potential for not having health care and all these things that are also going to affect me, but also at the same time having that phase in your life where things finally feel like they’re starting to come together and being so happy and just trying to remember to be able to enjoy and be thankful for those amazing things that are also happening,” she says.

The songs on Thanksgiving view that tightrope walk from various perspectives, starting with “Tent City,” an upbeat bluegrass number about a person living under the highway whose home is “a welcome sight,” even with its “ripped up seams and rained on sheets and a ragged old mattress and a roof that leaks.” The title track sets the Dakota Access Pipeline protests against the backdrop of a holiday supposedly rooted in friendship between America’s native population and white settlers. The project ends with “Times Like These,” a sweet duet that beckons the listener to take a deep breath amid all the strife and remember what grounds us:

Put down the paper, turn off the news
Won’t you come closer, kick off your shoes
Open the window, let in the breeze
Darling I need you, living in times like these. 

For a busy touring musician — Baiman travels with her own music, including 2017’s Shame; with 10 String Symphony, a duo with fiddle player Christian Sedelmyer; and as a fiddle player for other musicians, including Kacey Musgraves — the simple pleasures of home are especially meaningful, probably because they’re so fleeting.

Buying property and building a home in the outskirts of Nashville with her fiancé was something she felt driven to do, she says, because of “so many years of built up nomadicness.” (Before moving to Madison, Baiman says she lived in seven different houses around Nashville, all of which were chosen because they were “cheap and functional,” and some that were “real special,” she says with a laugh.)

“I became obsessed with interior design, and I’m just so deep into the nesting, the creation of the home — and I’m hardly in it, to be honest … .” she says. “Getting married, it’s kind of like a similar thing, I’m actually going to commit to something. This album has a lot to do with home because that’s sort of the phase I’m in.”

Home, too, is a way to cope with the chaos in today’s world and counteract how helpless she sometimes feels in the face of it, she says. “You want to create a place that feels like a sanctuary from that. If I can’t fix the world, I can fix my own house.”

A deep sense of home harks back to her childhood in Chicago, where she was raised in a family where social justice discussions were always on the menu. “Family dinner was kind of an institution for me growing up,” she recalls. “It always involved a lot of political and social debates.”

That home is where she’s returned for many Thanksgiving meals as an adult, and that’s the plan this year as well, this time with her new in-laws, who are from New Zealand and will be experiencing their first Thanksgiving celebration.

Thanksgiving is one of Baiman’s favorite holidays, she says, which is another reason she wanted to release a set of songs to mark it.

“It’s just a really low-pressure holiday,” she says. “There’s not any stress surrounding Thanksgiving; we all just hang out and have a meal together and it’s just so nice because often it’s the one time where my whole family is in one place.”

It’s also a holiday that Baiman, who describes herself as “not religious,” can participate in fully. While she grew up celebrating both Hanukkah and Christmas, representing her parents’ cultures, she says “they don’t have a religious significance for me. This one, since it’s not a religious holiday, it’s easier to get behind it more in terms of the spirit of what it’s supposed to be about.”

Food, family, and lively debate will surely be present at Baiman’s Thanksgiving table again this year, with an extra helping of gratitude.

“My gratefulness is very high this year especially,” she says. “I think there’s years in your life when you feel like you’re supporting other people, and then there’s years where you happen to be the recipient of all the support. This has been a big one for me in terms of receiving a lot of help with things.”

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Rachael Baiman's Thanksgiving EP is out today on Free Dirt Records. Among the project's four songs is "Madison, Tennessee." It was written by John Hartford, who lived just a few doors down from where Baiman is building her new home — in Madison.

Artist Rachel Baiman
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An interesting concept although for my money I can't imagine anything that tops James McMurtry's "Holiday" for capturing the range of emotions, both good and bad, a family holiday can induce.