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On Grant-Lee Phillips' 'The Narrows,' A Troubadour Looks Into His Ancestry

Fans of <em>Gilmore Girls</em> might recognize Grant-Lee Phillips from his recurring role as the town troubadour. His latest solo album, <em>The Narrows</em>, explores his family history.
Fans of <em>Gilmore Girls</em> might recognize Grant-Lee Phillips from his recurring role as the town troubadour. His latest solo album, <em>The Narrows</em>, explores his family history.

The reboot of Gilmore Girls means fans will get to see Lorelai and Rory back on the small screen, but it also means the return of another beloved character: the town troubadour, played by Grant-Lee Phillips. Beyond his recurring role on the show, Phillips' musical career has found him performing across decades and genres, both solo and with bands. His latest album under his own name is called The Narrows.

Phillips spoke with NPR's Rachel Martin about what being a troubadour means to him, and how he talks to his daughter about their shared Native American heritage. Hear the radio version at the audio link and read an edited version of their conversation below.

Rachel Martin: So, a troubadour is a storyteller. In that spirit, can you point us to a cut on this album that you think is just a really good story?

Grant-Lee Phillips: Well, I pull stories from history, and I'm always fascinated with family history and lineage. The song "Moccasin Creek" is one of those: I venture back to the place where my dad was born in Arkansas, and there's a lyric that goes, "Go down to the narrows where the water picks up." That's where the title of this album came from, that part of the river that's treacherous and seeks to pull you under. You have to do all you can to keep your head above water. That's sort of the metaphor — there are times in life like that.

Your previous album, Walking in the Green Corn, was also about your search into your ancestry. Was there a particular point in your life when you started to look at the past and where your family came from, and start to explore questions around that?

I think some of it had to do with becoming a father. I now have an 8-year-old daughter, and when that happened I felt like I wanted to understand where I came from, where our family came from, and be able to provide her with that rooting, you know? So that she could walk into the future knowing just how deep her roots go.

What have you told her about where your family comes from? Because 8 is a particular kind of age, and your family originates from native tribes so the stories may be complicated. How do you tell an 8-year-old that story?

Well, I suppose it's a little bit like drawing: You begin with stick figures, large outlines. And there are a lot of resources these days that are available, you know? Even apps where one can learn some very rudimentary language, some Muskogee words for instance.

So, when she was very young, maybe 5 or 6, we were using those kinds of things: raccoon, wotko. Things like that. It really sticks, too, because kids are little sponges in that way. And we went to powwows together, basically tried to walk through that road of discovery together.

Let's talk about another track off the album, called "Cry Cry." We hear in that song some echoes of what we were talking about, themes of Native American history and that family experience. How did this song come together?

Well, the Trail of Tears is something that I've been fascinated with for a long time. It's one of those major chapters from our history that we don't encounter in high school, generally speaking. You have to seek it out to understand it. And that idea, being severed from one's home, one's culture and language, all of that — I'm a descendant of those who did walk the Trail of Tears, and living here, in Tennessee, you can see those places where the trail actually wound its way. So it's hard not to put myself in that mindset, trying to imagine what that might have been like.

Another track that caught my eye on the album — even before I played it, just because of the title — is called "Taking On Weight in Hot Springs." What's going on in Hot Springs?

I suppose this song is set in another time. It's sort of a road trip — the desire to get off the grid, you know? It feels as though it's in the present, but that present is probably a very sepia-toned kind of place — a place where gangsters would flock to get away from it all.

Do you ever feel like you were born in the wrong era?

Wow, yeah, most certainly. Somehow I was plopped down at the wrong time. Or maybe it's the right time, I'm not sure! Imagery comes from a combination of experience and imagination, all of it. I think in some ways that's sort of what songs do for us. It allows us to have empathy and put ourselves in someone else's skin for a minute.

Is there another song on the album that you think speaks to that empathy?

Yeah. At the end of 2013, shortly after I had moved to Nashville, my dad's health plummeted and he passed away in November of that year. There was a song I was working on and it had remained unfinished, and I completed it in the few hours before he passed. I watched him face his mortality with grace and acceptance, and I wrote the song called "Smoke and Sparks" for him.

Did your daughter get to spend much time with your dad?

Just a little bit. Maybe these songs will help her one day to understand all of this.

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