Cowboys have always been ramblers. Just ask Willie or Waylon: it’s in their nature. But for native Athens troubadour Adam Klein, the road has been a long and dusty one, taking him across the globe in search of homes away from home and some good tunes along the way.
Klein, founder of the Athens roots label Cowboy Angel Music, spent some serious time in Mali as a Peace Corps volunteer. His two years in the sizable West African nation influenced both his music and his outlook on life. In a transatlantic interview while Klein was on another trip to Mali, he compared the country’s rugged terrain and lifestyle to that of the American Wild West.
“I think my travels have influenced my music, and certainly the aesthetic of my work, profoundly,” he says. “Living on the land in a rural developing community there, driven by and fully experiencing the natural cycles of the sun and moon, and interacting with other communities in the global south has allowed me to tap into a mysterious connection with the way folks have lived in the world in ages past, including the Old West frontier days in the States. I think this connection is present in my music, along with a sensitivity to the things which I’ve found matter most—dignity, goodness, community, love.”
Klein’s natural tendency as a songwriter is to lean into the dusty and rustic, playing acoustic country with a folk influence. His 2006 debut album Distant Music and its 2008 follow-up Western Tales & Trails find a songwriter with an easy grip on storytelling and American traditions: he’d fit nicely aside Steve Earle, Kevn Kinney or the Old 97’s. The lyrical themes are nothing new, but they don’t need to be, and his narratives carry a sincerity that’s hard earned and harder faked.
His latest music foray, though, is into traditional music from Mali’s Mande population. “I’ve just finished my first Malian album, a collection of acoustic songs in [the language] Bambara colored with kora (harp), ngoni (lute), calabash, tama (talking drum) and other Mande instrumentation,” says Klein. “I’m proud of the album and am pleased to give back to the people of Mali through a solid blend of our music styles. [Filmmaker] Jason Miller of Eikon Productions in Athens accompanied me on this trip, and we’ll be working on a documentary film about Mali and the making of my Mande album in the coming year which will help offer American and other audiences a greater understanding and insight into Malian life.”
Past collaborators of Klein’s include a solid who’s who of behind-the-scenes Georgia talents: musician/songwriter Randall Bramblett, pedal steel master John Neff (Drive-By Truckers), session player Phil Parlapiano (John Prine, Lucinda Williams), guitarist Phil McArdle (Star Room Boys) and fiddler Dave Blackmon, among others. And as a natural collaborator and someone driven to share culture, Klein has started Cowboy Angel Music, an Athens-based label initially intended to distribute his own music but now releasing albums from others.
The purpose of Cowboy Angel Music is to create community in Athens around great roots-based acoustic music: ‘Americana,’ country folk, bluegrass, etc.,” says Klein. “I’ve often said that Athens remains on the musical map mainly for indie rock and pop, both of which I happen to love, but I feel there’s such an excellent ‘Americana’ scene that it deserves a strong central platform through which our artists can receive greater attention locally and beyond.”
Nutria, a band featuring members of the Drive-By Truckers and the now-defunct Athens band The Eskimos, will release its pop-rock disc Permanent Reminder of a Temporary Emotion this spring, and it will sit aside other lesser-known Georgia acts also on the roster: Little Country Giants, Justin Evans, The Granfalloons and Timber.
“This year is the first time I’ve been able to really start building Cowboy Angel in earnest,” says Klein. “I grew up in Athens and have been shaped by our music scene–going to see Kevn Kinney, Vic Chesnutt, Drive-By Truckers, Star Room Boys (or trio), and others have shaped my definition and experience of our special town. So I’m happy to contribute to the growth of the community.”
One of the stated responsibilities of the Peace Corps, in addition to providing aid to other countries, is to allow American citizens to return home with a deeper understanding of our country’s place in the world, and to share that knowledge with those at home.
“Some of my deepest relationships exist in Mali,” says Klein, “and I’ve lost a number of friends either in my time here or whom were connected with my experience of Mali. So it’s a difficult place, but I appreciate my time in Mali and find the cultures to be rich and storied.”
And for someone who’s given much of his time, energy and heart to his second home, Cowboy Angel Music is a way for Klein to do the same at home in Georgia. “Athens has such a thriving arts scene, especially for a town its size, and I’m always proud and amazed by the music being made and performed here. Going out to see shows is definitely a part of my lifestyle, and there are few better places to be, as far as I’m concerned, for a small, inclusive, friendly, supportive, and collaborative music community,” he says.
“Mali is a place fraught with deep connections, relationships, and emotions for me. It’s a roller coaster ride, and a fierce courtship. There’s a Bambara proverb that says ‘No matter how long a log stays in water it will never be a crocodile.’ Despite my familiarity with Mande culture and my solid level of Bambara fluency, it is always a challenge being here,” says Klein. “Whether it’s enduring the relentless heat of the sun, transport, infrastructure, or corruption issues, eating tasteless food in the village, or suffering bouts of giardia and other infections, Mali always wins. But it’s also the place where I feel most alive and productive as far as music and writing are concerned.”
Though Klein may be a fish out of water—or a log in a Malian river—he’s found a way to bridge the inspiration he feels in rural West Africa with the sense of community Athens is known for. Cowboys may ramble, but that doesn’t mean they’re never at home: it just means they’re lucky to have many.