"I never want to leave this world/without saying that I love you," S.G. Goodman sings on "Space and Time," a country weeper that serves as the first song on her solo debut Old Time Feeling. "I owe my life to even my enemies/the ones who have loved me/the one who have tried." Her vibrato give the song a keening, unforgettable edge—a tribute to love and community that comes with a stab of pain.
"I have obsessive-compulsive disorder," Goodman told me matter-of-factly over Facetime from her home in Murray, Kentucky, wearing striped denim overalls and her trademark large glasses. "Space and Time," she says, "was about how easy it is to "go down a rabbit hole of feeling isolated and struggling with the thought of not really wanting to be alive at that moment." It also touches on the feelings of being a lesbian in the rural South, and thinking about acceptance, representation and isolation.
But the song is written in such an open way that it could apply to anyone. Goodman's sung it at weddings, she says. She figures she could sing it at graduations and funerals. It's especially relevant now, as the country grapples with a mounting death toll and the loneliness that comes with lockdown and social distancing. "I don't want to be an opportunist there, but it has morphed into a corona anthem, for sure," she adds. "The need to tell people you love them applies to all the moments of life."
Goodman has a knack for writing about her specific experience and communities in a way that connects across differences and state lines. Her video for her song "The Way I Talk" is set on the family farm, featuring her father, her brother and her three-year-old niece. It's a celebration of the beauty of the land, and also a bitter reflection on the exploitation of Southern labor and prejudice against rural people. "Sharecropper daughter/she sings the blues/of a coal miner's son," she spits, before the song ends in a squall of angry guitar feedback—rock speaking for and to country.
Goodman's a wonderfully easy interview. She explains with good cheer that she wanted to speak by Facetime since it was about all the human contact she would have for the day, and swinging the phone around to show me her dog sacked out on the couch. Like her music, when she talks she's funny, passionate and welcoming. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you become a musician?
I mean, I was raised in the church. So as soon as you let anybody know you could sing, you were kind of guided into performing in the choir. And I really wasn't into it! But I learned a lot.
And it is still—I mean, I'm not really involved in church at all these days, but those songs and the melodies are, I would say the most influential thing that's ever happened to me as far as music goes. When somebody tells you that you need to sing as if God's hearing you that's pretty powerful. No matter what I believe about it now, that's never left me.
This is your first solo album. But you've been performing for a while, right?
Yeah, I'm 31. I went under a different moniker for a minute and released an album as The Savage Radley. That's where I really started writing songs that were more focused on where I'm from in my home story.
And before that, when I was around 18, I did pop music. I had a radio single that supposedly was played in 40 states.
I'm not ashamed of it or anything. I mean, you know, those were songs I wrote at like 16 to 18 years old and they weren't bad. I'm not embarrassed of it, but I definitely don't want to highlight it.
Did your niece have a good time shooting that video for "The Way I Talk"? She looked like she was having fun.
Oh, my goodness, she had a blast. She was three years old in that video. And she did wonderfully, though she's a little shy. I told the boys who were filming I said just don't talk to her, she'll warm up, and she did.
I fed her candy all day, which was half good, half bad. She would have a sugar high and you couldn't get her to focus. But most of it, if you just watch the video, we really just let her do her own thing. There were very few moments in the video that we had to actually tell her what to do.
But it was pretty simple, aside from the fact that she had to skip her nap time. So things got a little rough towards the end of the day. But she did great. I mean, she was a natural. She got in the back of my car one moment she said, "I'm the star!" I was like, "You sure are!"
It was special to have two generations of farmer's daughters in that video. I wanted to portray that.
"Red Bird Morning" is a lovely sad song. What inspired that?
I came up with most of the imagery in that song while reflecting on a breakup.
So yeah, I was recently dumped. And, when you're dumped, you kind of become a detective, as you try to go back to instances where you think things went wrong. And I thought about how I got on someone's bad side for leaving the day before my birthday to go to the Standing Rock protest. So the person in the song is traveling, and it's actually about me on my way to Cannon Ball on the Standing Rock reservation.
And also, you know, there's an old saying in the South that red birds like cardinals have a special spiritual meaning. The red birds are loved ones who have left you and are visiting you. And I was on my back porch while I was writing that and—obviously I was dumped, so I needed comfort.
I think if you're going to get spiritual and think about spiritually impactful moments, you have a really good chance of that happening after getting your heart broken.
So was "Red Bird Morning" something you just wrote recently? How long have you been working on the songs on the album?
Oh, they're all over the place honestly. "Red Bird Morning" would have been written in 2018. There's a song on the record "Supertramp" that would have been written in 2011. And my song "Tender Kind" I wrote in the studio.
I'm not a factory when it comes to writing. I might have a verse for a few years, and it's just not the right time for the rest to present itself. I'm not one of those people who writes five song a day.
Are there people who write five songs a day?!
There are! There are people who write at least a song a day or more. And I just don't, that's just not how my process is. And I used to beat myself up about it, but I really don't anymore. Because I always say, if a song is meant to stay around, you won't forget it. And if you do, then it wasn't meant to be.
"Old Time Feeling" is a pointed song about what people in cities think of people who live in rural areas. What do you think northerners or people in cities need to know about the South?
People often use stereotypes when talking about the South. And a lot of people are very shocked when certain legislation passes in the South.
And people don't really want to understand the way our state governments work and who's involved in them, how they came to power, and the out-of-state money that goes into making sure there's a large population of people who are forced into cheap labor. So many states in the South have become right-to-work states. A lot of the times when people look at certain things going on in the South it comes from a place of judgment, rather than from trying to understand the complexity there.
I'm not trying to be an ambassador or something like that. But people are often not in tune with the progressive initiatives that are happening in the South right now with different politicians and different organizations who are of real positive change for the people.
You know, I live in Kentucky. I want Mitch McConnell out. I want people from other states to understand that we need to work together across state lines to help these political initiatives. I worked on the Andy Beshear campaign [which won the Kentucky governorship for Democrats in 2019]. But I am really outraged politically right now, and I can't canvas.
Is it a hard time to be releasing a debut album?
There's a lot of conflicting arguments around that. But right now people have a lot more time to listen. And they might take the time to listen a little harder. It's not like they're just playing a playlist while they're driving to work and drinking their coffee and trying to get away. People might actually be listening while sitting still right now. So that's encouraging.
For a person who loves to perform, and loves to meet people…but I feel like my work will stand on its own. And I will get back out there and get to organically meet people through shows again. It is a scary time. But I really don't think it would serve me at all to focus on it, so I'm not.