by Donovan Wheeler photos by Jennifer Newlin courtesy of The Press House
When I tell my students that the Grapes of Wrath is a love story, I get my share of sidelong gazes. After all, on the face of it, Steinbeck’s gargantuan novel plods over a ceaseless series of calamites and disasters with far more dependability than the half-broken jalopy hauling Family Joad across the cracked pavement of the American West.
But a love story it is. The metaphorical blanket sweeping over the novel may be painted with a tapestry of illness, eviction, greed, raw hedonism, and death, but underneath it even a Rose of Sharon can drop her self-absorption and shallow sense of dignity for the sake of man she would have never acknowledged otherwise.
While glancing over the track listing for Cartoon Moon, the third album recorded by the Wisconsin-based trio Dead Horses, it was the second song, “Red Pony,” which caught my attention. Immediately my mind went to a lesser-known Steinbeck classic, yet one rich in many of the same themes found in the writer’s more famous epic.
If you’re like me, some thick-mustached English teacher forced you to read the first chapter of Steinbeck’s The Red Pony. And, if you’re still like me, you were too young to see it as an anthem of hope. All you saw in your mind was the dead horse…and the buzzards…and you shared Jody Tiflin’s rage. If that really is how you felt about it all those years ago, read it again. Ignore the horse and give Jody’s youthful impulsiveness a pass. Follow Billy Buck, and in him you’ll see the beauty layered under the sadness. Life is hard, death comes to us all, but while we’re here, we can offer compassion. We can give of ourselves to others. We can create beauty in the form of kindness, presented as love, and we can give that to anyone we wish.
Inspired in large part by Steinbeck, Dead Horses lead vocalist Sarah Vos—along with her bandmates, guitarist Peter Raboin and bassist Daniel Wolff—have teamed up with producer Ken Coomer (Uncle Tupelo, Wilco) to create a melodic mixture of folk, Americana, bluegrass, and more which hearkens to the power of love and hope in a world which often gives us little reason to feel either.
Dead Horses performs Thursday (9/22/2016) at the Hi-Fi in Indy’s Fountain Square District — Their new album, Cartoon Moon, releases on September 30, 2016.
Formed in Oshkosh, but now largely headquartered in Milwaukee, Dead Horses has grown from its 2010 inception as a locally performing, regionally popular quartet into a nationally touring sensation, currently traveling alongside Elephant Revival and Mandolin Orange.
The first thing that holds you are Vos’s hypnotic vocals. Clear and rolling, her deep tones croon steadily while her high octaves peal beautifully, all the while anchored by the technical mastery of Raboin’s mandolin. The combined effect is a record which simultaneously inspires and soothes. From the celebratory lyrics in the album’s lead-off “Golden Sky,” to the reminder that we’re not alone in “Deep Blue Sea,” to the forward-looking renewal in “Peace My Soul” Cartoon Moon is, most importantly, an engaging and thoroughly entertaining record. But what seals the record’s appeal is that sweeping, aforementioned theme.
In an age of stark division during yet another hyper-polarized election cycle, in a time when even playing the National Anthem sends the Internet into apoplectic shock, when the threat of random violence leads to a level of heightened awareness which verges on paranoia, Dead Horses’ universal idea that we are bound by a common need to share our love and to hope for better times seems not only fitting, it’s actually much needed.
About Donovan Wheeler
Wheeler proudly teaches AP Literature and AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He is the senior editor for the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes for ISU’s STATE Magazine. Since putting in a pool he can now dive in head first (with goggles), and he has mostly stopped throwing golf clubs, but he still hates to fly.