By: Michael Spawn
In a world of uncertainties, it’s comforting to know we can always count on Todd Mathis for a good protest song.
In 2013, the American Gun frontman, along with members of Whiskey Tango Revue, released “NRA,” three minutes and thirty seconds of honky-tonk satire in which Mathis assumes the perspective of a loud-and-proud firearms enthusiast, hell-bent on protecting an Amendment that is actually in little to no peril. The song is funny, but where “NRA” uses irony to make its point, Mathis’s latest bit of musical conscience arrives in truly earnest form—no jokes, no winks or nudges; simply his feelings on an issue that has the eyes of the nation fixed squarely (again) on South Carolina. But Mathis’s sincere delivery is completely appropriate, given how simultaneously delicate and explosive that issue really is.
Along with ad-hoc backup band The Discard Pile (Paul Bodamer and Philippe Herndon) Mathis just recorded and released “Fuel That Flag,” a protest song in the staunchly American tradition. Musically, the song couldn’t be less subversive; its standard chord progression rides merrily atop an unflashy, mid-tempo backbeat, with the overall feel being that of mid-‘90s alternative rock, a sludgier Superdrag. The tune is easy to latch onto and the chorus pops with confidence, but as with all protest music, the lyrical message is really the whole trip. “Fuel That Flag” began life as a poem partially inspired by Abram Joseph Ryan’s famous Conquered Banner, and once he was satisfied, Mathis put his words to music, recruited a couple of friends, and turned his verse into a recorded document. The lyrics are plaintive without being overly maudlin; they express anger but leave ample room for hope. “Show the state / And show the world / Fuck this talk / Of respectful furl / Take it down / And start tomorrow / To put away / The pain and sorrow,” Mathis sings in the song’s second verse, which gives way to the chorus of, “You say heritage / I say hate / Fuel it now / It’s not too late.” Given Mathis’ well-known humorous touch, (this is, after all, a guy who named his band American Gun, only to turn around write a piece of Second Amendment satire) his sincere delivery is all the more powerfully felt. The vocals dominate the mix—he wants you to hear what he’s saying and how strongly he feels about it all.
Protest music in the United States first gained real traction in the 19th century and from there, it’s bloodline moved through Woody Guthrie, to Bob Dylan and Janis Ian, on to the hardcore punk scene of Washington D.C., and finally finding its most recent wide-reaching embodiment in the vitriol of Rage Against the Machine. I’m obviously only skimming the surface. The total history of American protest music isn’t nearly as important as the history that music aims to make. Not all succeed, but our society inevitably progresses. With this in mind, it might be fair to say that Todd Mathis has written the most important song of his career. While one song might not change the world, passionate people do. And songs don’t write themselves.
Here’s a link to the song’s Bandcamp, where you can listen for free or as a name-your-price download.