In 2009, South Dakota folk songwriter Jami Lynn set out across the Great Plains of the United States to collect folk songs from the early settlement days in the Dakota Territory.
What she discovered, however, was a series of stories, characters, and places that emerged along the way and asked to be written about. Since then, Lynn has continued her journey with those elements, culminating in her latest album, Fall Is a Good Time to Die, six years in the making. Sitting in the tension between tradition and innovation, Fall Is a Good Time to Die is an intriguingly satisfying collection of songs that not only pays homage to the American roots tradition, but explores and pushes it further into the musical frontier.
Fall Is a Good Time to Die is the first album of Lynn’s comprised entirely of original songs, self-produced alongside her band, Dalton Coffey (dobro, mandolin) and Andrew Reinartz (bass). Lynn’s voice is reminiscent of Anaïs Mitchell’s, with a darker, wilder quality all her own, as if she were born to project her voice across the plains. With the power and dynamic of My Brightest Diamond, Lynn’s voice is complimented by her deceptively creative melodies.
As an undergraduate, Lynn started out studying classical voice while playing folk music with her band on weekends. But it soon became clear that her aspirations didn’t lie in opera, so she hit the road to “dig around in museums, archives, churches, and personal collections around South Dakota.” The result was a collection of songs “from my area.” “I came across a lot of obscure folk songs that I just had to work up and perform,” she says. During this time she spent a week in Texas with her grandparents. As she shared some of the stories and songs she was discovering, she says, “they poured out similar stories that were part of our family history… These other people, my great-great-grandparents, started floating around in my head and became narrators.” So she began to write. While her last album, Sodbusters (which included songs collected during her folk research), was “Kind of an ode to South Dakota,” Fall Is a Good Time to Die is even more so. “It’s not about the hardy settlers that we put on pedestals, but about everything else – the landscape, the animals, and the people that lived here before it was settled,” Lynn says. “I think the old folk songs are always present in my writing, but the stories on this album are my own stories, set up by thousands of years of stories told on the plains, by settlers, the Lakota people, and the ‘old’ people that preceded them in living here.”
One of these stories is told in “Wolf,” one of three songs on the album that Lynn refers to as the “South Dakota Predator Trilogy.” Though wolves had been largely eradicated from South Dakota for nearly a century, a few summers ago Lynn spotted one in the northeastern part of the state. “We were driving on a road near our farm in the middle of the day. And there it was, trotting in an open field next to the road in the middle of the day, completely unconcerned about anything,” she says. She speculated that the wolf must have made its way down from Northern Minnesota or Canada. The song imagines how it got there, as the long-lost predator of the plains recalls its days of provenance and tells of its finely tuned skill, instinct, and anatomy – the things that “keep me in the stories they all tell.”
In many ways, Jami Lynn’s music is a lot like that wolf, an ancient symbol trotting along in a modern landscape where its kind had once thrived. Her powerful voice, attention to detail and storytelling, and innovative mastery of dynamic, become a finely tuned homage to the plains of South Dakota. Fall Is a Good Time to Die is a sign of life, the resurrection of a species of storytelling and folklore – an art that seems mythic because today it is so uncommon to behold.