Former Southeast Engine frontman recovers from restlessness to find peace at home on new album 'Sourwood'
Beloved Athens band Southeast Engine ended its final album, 2011's Canary, with an instrumental version of the old-time fiddle tune “Sourwood Mountain.” In the years since Southeast Engine grew quiet, the song began to take on more importance for singer and songwriter Adam Remnant.
He liked the sound of the word — “Sourwood” — and he began to imagine it as a fictional place in southeast Ohio's Appalachian surroundings. Eventually, in the basement of his Athens home, Remnant wrote a seven-and-a-half-minute folk-rock epic named after the locale. In it, a woman tries desperately to free herself from Sourwood Mountain, and she does, but the song's other character can't quite escape. Remnant interrogates that tension in an earthy, approachably literate style, his compellingly crackly voice adding grit and gravitas.
“I fear I'll never bridge that river,” Remnant sings, but then adds, “Don't worry; I'm not worried.”
The song serves as the centerpiece to Sourwood, Remnant's first full-length solo release that follows his 2016 EP, When I Was a Boy. Remnant and his band — brother Jesse Remnant on bass and vocals, Ryan Stolte-Sawa on violin and vocals, and Jon Helm on drums — will celebrate the new album with a show at Ace of Cups on Thursday, July 12. (Copies of Sourwood will be available at the show, with an official Anyway Records release date to follow on Aug. 17.)
While When I Was a Boy grappled with the loss of youth, Sourwood presents the struggle between the comforts of home and the lure of the road. As Southeast Engine wound down, and as Remnant's family began to grow (he and his wife have two daughters, ages 4 and 6), the songwriter couldn't figure out how to merge his two lives into one.
“You grow up with this narrative of, to be a musician is to sacrifice everything at that altar, where you just have to put that number one and everything else is second to that,” Remnant said. “And then alternatively is this narrative that you have to give up those dreams and ambitions and be a responsible adult. I felt stuck, caught in the crossfire of those narratives.”
“Those two are hard to coexist, at least on an indie-music level where you're not making a lot of money,” he continued. “But my thing was I wanted to have it all.”
Previously, Remnant tried to make it all work by taking construction jobs, which allowed him to go on tour whenever he wanted. But that life wore him down.
“Sometimes we'd go out and play weekends, and one night you're out playing in front of people having a blast, then you drive home, and literally the next morning I'm in a crawl space digging out some insulation,” he said.
“At work I was sweating in some crawl space, full of apprehension,” Remnant sings on “Giver of Life,” a deeply personal song about starting a family with his wife, Amanda, whom he mentions by name in the song.
“The last couple Southeast Engine records were so character-driven,” he said. “After doing that for so long, I felt the need to be more direct.”
Though Remnant will head out for a 10-day jaunt supporting Sourwood, he's not a heavily touring musician anymore. He spends most days with his daughters or teaching at Hocking College and Stuart's Opera House. And he's fine with that.
“Part of my identity was wrapped up in being [a touring musician]. It took me some time to be OK with that not being the reality,” he said. “But right now it feels good. I'm having a lot of fun making music. … That's not to say it's struggle free. There are still moments of frustration. It's not completely resolved. But hopefully I won't make this record again.”