Vincent Neil Emerson is a torchbearer of the Texas songwriter tradition. He channels the straightforward truth-telling and resonance of his songwriting heroes in Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Steve Earle into something fresh and distinctly his own. Where his 2019 debut Fried Chicken and Evil Women proved that he is one of the most reverent students of country and Western musical traditions, his follow-up LP, the masterful Rodney Crowell-produced Vincent Neil Emerson, is a brave step forward that solidifies his place as one of music's most compelling and emotionally clarifying storytellers. His songs are cathartic and bluntly honest, never mincing words or dancing around uncomfortable truths.
Raised in Van Zandt County in East Texas by a single mother of Choctaw-Apache descent, Emerson's world changed when he first heard Townes Van Zandt's music. "To hear a guy from Fort Worth say those kinds of things and make those songs was pretty eye-opening," the now 29-year-old songwriter said. "I had never heard songwriting like that before." He's spent the better part of the past decade honing his songwriting and performance chops playing bars, honky-tonks, and BBQ joints across the Fort Worth area. These marathon gigs and the undeniable songs on his debut introduced Emerson to Canadian songwriter Colter Wall, who quickly became a close friend and took him on tour.
Like every working musician, 2020 pulled the rug out from under Emerson. With the pandemic shuttering live music venues and canceling promising tours, he processed the upheaval the only way he knew how: by writing his ass off. "At the beginning of quarantine, I was really frustrated with everything else going on," said Emerson. "Everything was falling apart around me, and I didn't know what to do." He took to his writing shed and came up with the single "High On Gettin’ By," a gorgeous song full of self-reflection and resilience: the most autobiographical thing he's ever written.
That song proved to be a turning point for Emerson. "After I wrote it, the floodgates opened up for me in my songwriting and emotionally," he said. " Songwriting has always been a therapeutic thing for me. So I just started writing more from the heart." Allowing himself to be open and revealing some of the most intimate details of his life was a scary, yet freeing, prospect for Emerson, especially on the raw and devastating "Learnin' To Drown," which addresses his father's suicide.
Elsewhere, on "The Ballad of the Choctaw-Apache," he sings of how in the 1960s, the Choctaw-Apache tribe of Sabine Parish in Louisiana was forced to sell "180,000 acres of ancestral land" to the government, uprooting them from their home. Emerson pulls no punches in his narration of the historic injustice, channeling the essence of traditional folk songs. Emerson explained: "This happened not too long ago and it affected my grandparents and my family directly. I've always strayed away from trying to write political songs, but this is more about human rights. For those people who were stripped of their land like that, it's still tough."
His intense and productive writing sessions produced 10 finished songs over the course of just a couple of months, a body of work so personal that he knew he would have to name the final product Vincent Neil Emerson. These demos caught the attention of Texas country and folk icon Rodney Crowell, who signed on to produce and record the LP. Crowell had similar high praise for Emerson: "If he grows on the public the way he’s grown on me, it’s possible young Vincent will plant the flag of his [songwriting] forebears firmly in the consciousness of a whole new generation."
Emerson is never overly sentimental, and across this album, he makes a point to just say how he feels in the most straightforward and real way he can. "I think I've always gravitated towards artists that are honest about what they're doing," said Emerson. "It's the most important thing because people have a chance to connect to a little more if you're telling the truth."