Fringe Movement: Kim Nall & The Fringe to Release "Lay Your Vision Down"

When we meet musicians and artists that we admire, often we are struck by how “down-to-earth” or “just like us” they are. When we finally had the pleasure of getting to know Kim Nall offstage, the effect was quite the opposite, in the best possible way. Nall is hypnotic, charismatic, and bold even in her bar banter; a purveyor of big ideas and smoldering glances even in her off hours. But this young musician is still humble about her work. Of her debut album Lay Your Vision Down, the magnetic frontwoman of Kim Nall & The Fringe said, “Hopefully we’ve made something that touches someone else.”

And touch people it does. Produced by Grady Don Sandlin and Justin Collins, the record features Nall on lead vocals, acoustic and electric guitars; Petra Kelly on violin and vocals; Matt Shasteen on electric guitar, 12-string, baritone, and lap steel; Josh Kitchens on bass; Taylor Sims on keyboards; and Charlie Moore on drums. Nall herself has been a part of the Denton music scene since moving to the city in 2008 to attend the University of North Texas. After years of playing with other bands, in the spring of 2015 she formed Kim Nall & The Fringe, whose sound can be described with various provocative designations: country noir, moody Americana; a sermon not from the mount, but instead from the flat, democratic vistas of north Texas.

Nall has been singing since childhood and playing guitar since her early teens. According to her own bio, with these talents in hand she “immediately began writing sad songs.” This fascination with the darker side of country, with sadness itself, can be felt on Lay Your Vision Down, but is balanced by the audible-if-restrained joy in Nall’s smoky voice, which winds its way through this record like a flowering creeper vine.

Lay Your Vision Down’s ten tracks, clocking in at a concise 41 minutes, seem familiar in their engagement with classic country instrumentation and subject matter, but fresh and engaging in their reinterpretations of what country can be and do. Nall’s songwriting is perhaps the album’s greatest asset.

“I never was a daughter of the daylight / and you never were a lamp I could believe / a reflection showing everything I wanted / and making ash of everything I see,” Nall sings on the album’s opener, “Moon.” This track is a stunning showcase for Nall’s voice, both sweet and sultry, as well as for Kelly’s crisp yet melancholy violin. Nall names Gillian Welch and Patti Smith among her influences, and one can hear the honeyed-whiskey quality of these formidable women in her voice and in the spirit of her lyrics.

The slow, foreboding plod of “Cat & Bird,” coupled with its storybook-esque narrative, is as menacing as it is beautiful. One pictures the song’s heartbeat-like opening notes thumping to life as a pair of saloon doors slowly swing open in a modern-day western. “Come away little bird / come away from that tree / come and sit by my window / come and sit and talk with me,” the cat purrs, setting up the song’s forbidding story:

Fly away little bird
Get thee far away from me
Don’t you come back round my window
Don’t you come round home to me

Leave behind your bed of feathers
Leave behind your house of leaves
Leave behind your mother’s singing
For you’ll never sing for me

Here, Nall’s writing seems deceptively innocent, even childlike. But the cat, a symbol of terrestrial danger and seduction, and the bird, a symbol of heavenly freedom and purity, are in an age-old conversation, here; and they echo, for instance, Jacob’s Ladder, the connection between heaven and earth. This track, among others, are shining examples of Nall’s ingenious Americana songwriting.

As we struggle to (re)define what America is and who gets to be an American, participating in the Americana genre is a peculiar prospect at this particular moment in our nation’s history, or so I thought before putting this query to Nall herself. Her take on the job of the Americana songwriter is akin to that of the poet Allen Ginsberg, a great (if unusual) chronicler of America, whose poem “Lay Down Yr Mountain” gave the album its title. Ginsberg was uninterested in idealizing America and instead focused on chronicling the country as it was, as it is. As an Americana songwriter, Nall too is uninterested in generalizing about America or Americans. “America is, and always has been, about the vast array of people living here. We are a country built on variety, and we keep it alive by telling stories,” Nall says, “so my job as a songwriter is to continue that tradition, by adding my stories to that fabric and sometimes by documenting other people’s.”

In a 1976 interview with journalist Peter Barry Chowka, Ginsberg discussed the spiritual basis of “Lay Down Yr Mountain” as well as Bob Dylan’s role in its creation. “[Dylan] found that there was a subtle relationship between pleasure and pain,” Ginsberg said, adding, “His words were, ‘They’re in the same framework.’” The scaffold between pleasure and pain, between death and life, underpins Lay Your Vision Down as well.

The album is set to officially debut on January 20th, one of the most auspicious inauguration days in American history. From this day forward, many Americans may find themselves unsure of where their country is headed or afraid that their status as Americans is in jeopardy. Difficulty and uncertainty, for Nall, provide us with opportunities to make art and breed understanding. “Ginsberg wrote ‘Lay Down Yr Mountain’ on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975… it’s mainly a poem about using your challenges to communicate whatever it is you have to say more purely,” she says. What does the imperative to “lay down” mean for Nall, or for us? “There’s a double meaning when he says ‘lay down,’” she explains. “[Ginsberg] is telling you to lay down all of your assumptions and burdens and, especially, the illusion that you have any control. But it’s also an admonition to make sure you record every detail of the experience.”

Nall’s exhortations are beautiful battle cries for creation and art: “Use your pain, use your uncertainty, document everything and use it to make something worth the sacrifice. And that’s what this album has been for me: the gift of laying down my weight on record so as to stop having to carry it.”

Her intricate, affective songwriting and engagement with literature are no accident: Nall has studied and currently teaches high school English. As a poet who’s interested in music, we were curious to get Nall’s take on what it’s like to be a musician who’s interested in poetry. When asked whether literature influenced her songs and songwriting, Nall replied, “I’m of the opinion that it’s all literature.” And why should we disagree? Late last year, Dylan, one of Kim Nall & The Fringe’s touchstones, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature amidst a flurry of controversy and discussion.

But for Nall, moments like Dylan’s Nobel win are occasions for greater understanding, not for gatekeeping. “I’m not saying that my songs belong in any canon of significance,” she elaborates, “but I’m not interested in arbitrary designations of one form of art as more elevated than another. One of my students last semester didn’t want to write about a poem by a dead white guy, so I let him write about a Kendrick Lamar song. I defy anyone to listen to those lyrics and tell me they have no literary significance. And when I write something, I don’t always know whether it will be a song or a poem until it’s done, because it all comes from the same source. So I think it’s all the same endeavor: we’re all just trying to find more direct avenues to the truth through our words.”

In his interview with Chowka, Ginsberg noted that “[Dylan] also said he believed in God. That’s why I wrote ‘Lay down yr Mountain Lay down God.’ Dylan said that where he was, ‘on top of the Mountain,’ he had a choice whether to stay or to come down. He said, God told him, ‘All right, you’ve been on the Mountain, I’m busy, go down, you’re on your own. Check in later.’” On this impressive debut, Kim Nall & The Fringe prefer to be exactly there: at the fringe rather than at the center, at the base of the mountain rather than at its peak—singing, drumming, strumming, bowing, and plunking their way towards truth from the edge.

Dentonites will be tempted, as I was, to hear the album’s closer, “This Town,” as a thorny love letter to Denton itself. Nall launched her career here in Little D and recorded the album at Denton-based recording studios The Echo Lab and Satisfactory Recording Company. And as is the case with every hometown and city that has a place in our hearts, the “town” of this track offers pain and comfort in equal measure. “This town’s been a hole in my heart,” Nall sings, “…a lover when all I needed was a friend.” Hank Early’s ethereal pedal steel winds through the track like whistling wind while Nall croons, “This town’s been a gun to my head / a lonesome choir singing a song for the dead / a cold white morning in a stranger’s room / harsh daylight when all I could bear was moon.” Our towns give us what we need as well as what we didn’t know we could overcome.

On this final track, Nall sings, “I’m haunted and heavy / far from sacred ground / but its sweeter than sin / to know in the end / that the place you come home to don’t mind where you’ve been.” Wherever the success of Kim Nall & The Fringe takes the band in the future, Denton will surely never mind where they’ve been: they can always come home to us. We’ll be here waiting, hands readied in applause for this standout ensemble.

Kim Nall & The Fringe are scheduled to release Lay Your Vision Down on January 15th at Dan's Silverleaf. Check out the event on Facebook and make sure you don't miss this show.

Header image design by Brittany Keeton