When folksinger Eliza Blue moved from Minneapolis to Perkins County, South Dakota, she didn’t mean to stay there long.

“It was really kind of like a sabbatical from city life and a sabbatical from touring full-time. And I think I thought I was going to have a little journey of self-discovery, and then sort of return to what I’d been doing,” she said.

So when she ended up marrying a fifth-generation rancher and moving permanently to South Dakota, she was as surprised as anyone.

Even though Blue had fallen in love with her husband and their lifestyle together, she struggled with what it meant to leave her old life behind. After all, ranching doesn’t leave much time for touring as a folk singer, and the performance venues in Perkins County are limited.

“It felt confusing because the first half of my life, I’d been working as a singer, songwriter,” Blue said. “And I’d been just really engaged with the arts. And I just thought, ‘does it just mean I have to leave that part of myself behind?’”

But she soon found the opposite was true. “I feel this is my life’s work to find ways to talk about what we’re doing here. And I think having that first time to get to just practice being an artist gave me that in my tool kit, so now I know what I’m supposed to be writing about,” Blue said.

Her writing touches on everything from raising her family to reforming agricultural systems and practices to an upcoming project connecting traditional festivals and celebrations to their agrarian roots.

In addition to writing and recording music, Blue is a regular contributor to the Daily Yonder and South Dakota Public Radio, and the author of a weekly column, Little Pasture on the Prairie. She has also published a book, Accidental Rancher, and writes and hosts a new traveling concert television show, Wish You Were Here.

In the latest episode of Everywhere Radio, Eliza Blue talks to host Whitney Kimball Coe about finding her calling, the gift of outsider status, and the power of naming. Everywhere Radio is a podcast produced by the Rural Assembly in partnership with the Daily Yonder. Every other Thursday, Whitney Kimball Coe welcomes new guests to talk about the good, scrappy, and joyful ways people are practicing leadership in rural communities around the country.


Hear about these things and much more in the latest episode of Everywhere Radio, a podcast produced by the Rural Assembly in partnership with the Daily Yonder. Every other Thursday, host Whitney Kimball Coe welcomes new guests to talk about the good, scrappy ways people are practicing leadership in rural communities across the country.

You can find Everywhere Radio wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcasts, and Spotify. Start listening and subscribe today to never miss an episode. The latest is available below, along with a full transcript of the conversation.


Listen Now

Full Transcript

Eliza Blue:

(singing).

Whitney Kimball Coe:

That was the music of Eliza Blue, this week’s guest on Everywhere Radio. Everywhere Radio is a production of The Rural Assembly, and I’m your host, Whitney Kimball Coe. Each episode, I spotlight the good, scrappy and joyful ways rural people and their allies are building a more inclusive nation. Eliza is a shepherd, writer, and folk singer. She lives on a ranch in South Dakota with her husband and two children. The ranch has been in her husband’s family for five generations, but Eliza took a more circuitous route to South Dakota. She is a contributing columnist to our media partner, The Daily Yonder, and calls herself the accidental rancher. So Eliza Blue, I’m so glad you’re here on Everywhere Radio. Thank you for saying yes.

Eliza Blue:

Well, I’m really, really glad to be here.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

And I know you said you have a cold today, and I’m sorry about that. But you do sound lovely anyway.

Eliza Blue:

Well, this is the beauty of Zoom, is that I can visit with you and not also give you my germs, so I’m happy for that.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

Well, we hope you feel better soon. And thanks for talking with me today. I’ve been really excited about this interview, actually all week because I’ve been listening to your music and reading some of your articles. So you’re a musician, a singer, songwriter. You’re a rancher who lives in Perkins County, South Dakota. You’re an author. You have a book, The Accidental Rancher. You’re a mother and a partner and a homesteader. So that’s a lot of hats that you wear, and it’s all really wonderful to read about them because you’re so descriptive through all of those mediums about the land upon which you live and the family you’re raising, and the hopes you have for the world. So it’s been really inspiring to dive into Eliza Blue this past week for me.

Eliza Blue:

Well, I feel the same way about your work, Whitney, so I really appreciate that.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

So I just gave a bunch of descriptors of you. But how would you describe yourself?

Eliza Blue:

Boy, that’s a good question. I think probably just a person who’s trying to muddle through the best they can. I mean, I think when I was younger especially, I sort of felt like I needed to have a real specific identity or an identifier. And especially since having kids, that’s just out the window now. That’s I think the beauty of both of getting older and having children is that you just … Things have to be a little bit more just like, “Well, it is what it is.” And so I started out as a musician, and writing was something I did more as a creative outlet after I’d moved to the ranch, and it just wasn’t possible to be touring and performing the same way because we are very far from a lot of other humans.

So I started, I’d always kept journals and sort of written for myself, but I started writing for our town’s paper just as a way to get thoughts out and to keep engaging with sort of I guess my creative process. And it’s just been really interesting because when I was trying to sort of make it as a musician and that was my full-time career, it was a lot of pressure. It’s really, really, really difficult to be a working artist, and it’s just very stressful. So writing this column, which was meant more to be for me and for fun, there was no strings attached to it. And therefore, there was a lot of freedom that I really … I don’t know. It just ended up being great, and it also ended up really connecting with people in ways that I wasn’t expecting. And it was a good lesson for me as an artist that if you are … When I was working as a musician, I was trying to be authentic, but always in the back of my mind, there was the understanding there’s going to be an audience waiting at some point to listen to the songs. And so with the column, that wasn’t a consideration and I think it was just really liberating for me to discover that if you are speaking your truth, there are people that’s going to connect with and your work will find them. And that was a really powerful lesson and has informed a lot of the things, so I’ve been writing that for seven years, and it’s informed a lot of the choices I’ve made, which I think is also why I am able to be a little bit more free in the way that I think about what it is I am creating and who I am as a creator, and just allowing things to unfold in a way that feels like it’s nourishing me, and then just trusting that it will find who it needs to find. Those stories will find who needs to hear them.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

So you’re a creator really, and you also write a column for The Daily Yonder, our sister program here at Rural Strategies. You had a column out recently that just made my heart sing, and it also gets to kind of what you’re talking about, I think this writing to better articulate what’s authentic about your experience and about the world around you. And then going out and practicing it is what you seem to be doing as a homesteader, as a rancher, as a mother and a partner and a musician as well. There’s a linkage between what you’re putting out into the world and how you’re living your life in the world.

Eliza Blue:

When I first moved out to South Dakota, I hadn’t intended to stay here long. It was really kind of like a sabbatical from city life and a sabbatical from touring full-time. And I think I thought I was going to have a little journey of self discovery, and then sort of return to what I’d been doing. So I was as surprised as anyone when I ended up staying here. And I really struggled for several years after I’d met and fallen in love with my husband. I knew that this is where I wanted to be because I wanted to be with him. And I had really fallen in love with the lifestyle of living, sort of having your livelihood be wrapped up in the land. But it also felt confusing because the first half of my life, I’d been working as a singer, songwriter. And I’d been just really engaged with the arts. And I just thought, “How can these … Does it just mean I have to leave that part of myself behind?” And it’s meant the exact opposite, which is that now all the tools that I built up, through working as a songwriter and as a performer even, it turned out what I learned by moving here and the relationship I now get to have with this ecosystem, which we live on the grasslands, is really … I feel this is my life’s work to find ways to talk about what we’re doing here. And I think having that first time to get to just practice being an artist gave me that in my tool kit, so now I know what I’m supposed to be writing about, which honestly, when I was doing the folk singer thing, and a young woman sort of adrift in the world and thinking, “Boy, the last thing the world needs is another folk singer singing songs about how her love life is a disaster,” which the world does need more of that. But it didn’t feel like that was my calling, but it turned out that the winding road I was on was so that I could talk about now what I feel like is my purpose, which is to talk about agriculture, about rural places, and about to a certain degree, the shift that needs to occur in the way that many of us think about the land and about food and our relationships with plants and animals.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

Oh, man. Absolutely. So I think about how you’re not from this area. You’re not from this landscape. And yet, it seems to be written on your heart in a lot of ways. And I’m just inspired and also interested to know. How is that, that it’s yours, that you feel so deeply about it? And I know you live on a five generation ranch, but it’s not through your family.

Eliza Blue:

It’s not mine, yeah. Well, this is interesting because one whole side of my mom’s family was sort of from the South, and Tennessee, Kentucky, and Appalachia. And I really feel like, I honestly do feel like I am not … This isn’t written on my DNA, actually. The plains culture is very foreign to me, whereas I feel like I should be in a holler somewhere strumming a banjo. But the gift of being sort of having that outsider status, even within my own little understanding of this place, I think that’s what allows me to write about it the way I do because it doesn’t feel … It’s not effortlessly to just dive in. It feels like I think I’ll always be learning. There’s always things that I’m like, “Wait. What?” But that allows me to then just see it differently because it is still, even after living here for 10 years, still there’s so much that is surprising about life here.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

There’s a quote from an article you wrote recently for The Daily Yonder. I think you pulled it from another writer, but it speaks to some of what you put out in your own work. And the quote was, “We find it hard to love what we cannot give name to. And what we do not love, we will not save.” And I was listening to your song, “Follow Me,” and you’re naming pieces of the prairie, the prairie dog, the sagebrush, the grass, and I wonder: Is that part of your DNA? No matter where you live, are you a seeker and someone looking to give names to the things that we need to love and hold onto?

Eliza Blue:

Well, yeah. Actually, it’s funny because that song, I wrote that song last summer before … So the writer that you’re talking about is Robert Macfarlane. And he wrote a book called The Lost Words. He’s actually written a second one. I think it’s called Lost Spells. And it was all about words that were being taken out of the dictionary that referred to things in the natural world. And it was for a kid’s dictionary, The Oxford Junior Dictionary. And the words were being taken out because the editors felt that they had a set length that it could be, and they thought there were words like chat room and voicemail that were more important to young people today, and that those other words, they just weren’t relevant to young people today. So he wrote this absolutely beautiful book that is bringing those words back as these blessings, and they’re poems, it’s really stunning. And there’s actually now an album that goes with it, which I just can’t encourage your listeners enough to go out and seek it out. So Lost Words, and I think it’s called The Lost Words Blessings is the album that’s associated with it. But I had written this song before, so I do think that there’s just something in the cultural zeitgeist that feels like, yeah, we need to be saying these words out loud. And especially for me, again, as a writer, I mean that’s what I do. I try to figure out how to explain things in words. And there are these relationships that we all crave whether we realize it or not.

I mean, if you even think about, this sounds so silly, but the fact that we bring cut flowers into our homes, or we have pictures on our walls of beautiful pastoral scenes, there’s just … I mean, the fact that we keep pets, that we want to have pets at all, when really, I mean having a pet, it’s a big commitment. It’s more work for you. But having that relationship with non-human animals, having those relationships with plants. I mean, we all crave that. And I think that unfortunately, we’ve gotten to a point, I’m sort of … I think I blame capitalism maybe more than is appropriate, but that’s where I’m at. I just feel like it’s cut us off from the source, so now we feel like we have to buy things to try to recreate those relationships. But regardless, we want them. We’re all, there’s something inside of us that, just what you said, it’s encoded into our humanness to want to engage with the natural world.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

We’ll be right back after this from The Daily Yonder.

Olivia Weeks:

Hi, I’m Olivia Weeks with The Daily Yonder. Lately, I’ve been digging into how rural public services have fared throughout the pandemic. For full coverage of rural public funding under the Biden administration, and more rural news and analysis, visit us at dailyyonder.com.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

I was thinking about the op-ed that you wrote for The New York Times. I guess it was last year in the midst of the pandemic. And it was very much about kind of the dichotomy of the life you’re living on the prairie, and about 450 miles away is Smithfield meat processing plant. You’ve had more time since you wrote that column even to probably think through how you would articulate the relationship between what you’re doing and what’s happening down the road from you.

Eliza Blue:

I wrote that op-ed right after there was the big outbreak because … And that was last spring. And it was really strange how again, our work wasn’t really disrupted by the pandemic because especially in the spring, that’s when the calves are born and the lambs are born. And we’re just, that happens 24 hours a day. There’s no schedule. Just like with humans, when you go into labor, you go into labor. And so we’re kind of just on the clock around the clock, and that’s just our neighbors as well. So nobody goes anywhere during that time anyway, so we’re all just on our ranches doing the same things we have to do. And then recognizing though that the animals that we raise here that have a lifestyle that’s really not that different than their ancient ancestors, buffalo, antelope, they’re roaming the grasslands eating, having babies, doing the same thing they’ve been doing for a long time. But they leave here, and then they enter into this industrialized agricultural system, where it doesn’t look anything like nature. I find that problematic on a lot of levels, but I’m not a policy wonk, so I don’t necessarily know what the answer is. I saw in that moment last spring when people saw these systems getting disrupted, and they saw the fragility of having things be so efficient, that one little … Well, it wasn’t one little thing. But one thing going wrong can just shut down the whole system, and it was a disaster. And so there was this kind of real energy around, we need more processing plants that are smaller, that are local. We need more ways to distribute agricultural products locally. And I felt really excited, but some of the energy has faded. And I also think it’s just a really tricky problem.

Things that feel like they are being disruptive and that feels negative, that is an opportunity for rebirth. I do think that there’s a reckoning that we are in the midst of. I don’t know what the end result of it is going to be. But I just got done reading Joanna Macy’s book Active Hope, that hope isn’t just hoping things will get better. Hope is thinking how you want things to be and then working to get there. As a person who feels called to put these things into, these things that I’m experiencing into words, I feel like my gift is to do it through songs and poetic language, which is to say, not to give us answers, which frustrates even me. But for me, it’s more about creating those relationships and describing those relationships. And hopefully, people who are smarter than me at figuring out how we’re going to solve these problems in a very practical way, that I can be part of the shift in how we’re going to do it better.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

That really goes back to that quote that you brought up in The Daily Yonder about we find it hard to love what we cannot give name to. And what we do not love, we will not save. And it sounds like you’re sensing your calling in this space is to be naming what we love, what we value, what we want to hold onto. One of the reasons I’m so drawn to your music and your writing is because you’re able to not just talk about your own experience, you’re able to contextualize it in an experience we can all see ourselves in parts of it. And so I think you have a broader perspective than just your own story.

Eliza Blue:

A lot of the things I write about because they’re the things I think about, are just the most basic cycles of birth and death. I mean, it’s fundamental to life on a ranch, but it’s fundamental to life everywhere. And again, these are things, whether we think about them or talk about them, we’re all experiencing them all the time. And so this is, my experience happens to be really visceral in that one of the things I do write a lot about too is when you live on the ranch, things die a lot. And that is really hard as a person that was raised in the suburbs, where your pets don’t even die. They just went to live on a farm one day. And you’re like, “Where’s my cat?” Oh, we took her to a farm. You just aren’t confronted with it very often, except in these really shocking ways when loved ones die. And even then, it’s really compartmentalized. Whereas here, it’s just daily. I mean, it’s how it is. And it’s very painful and I feel like I have gained so much, I don’t know if I’d call it peace, maybe wisdom, around accepting that dying is part of life. We are all part of that cycle, whether we want to believe that or not, that is part of what’s happening. And from the things that die, other things gain strength and are reborn. And again, all those sort of universal topics that, it never gets old to talk about them, I don’t think, because everyone who’s alive is in the middle of experiencing that cycle. And so it’s always going to be relevant as we try to understand ourselves and our place in the family of things, to quote Mary Oliver.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

Yeah. That’s awesome. You’re the first person to quote Mary Oliver on Everywhere Radio, and I’m really excited about it.

Eliza Blue:

I bet I won’t be the last.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

Maybe not. Is there a project you’re working on right now that you’re real excited about, or a book, another book in the works?

Eliza Blue:

Yeah. Both of those things. I am working on a book. And at first, I felt like I needed to kind of not talk about it too much because sometimes if you talk about things too much, then you talk about them instead of doing them. But that being said, I’m really excited about it. I just want to shout it from the rooftops. The book is going to be basically an almanac that’s looking at holidays and sort of things that we already celebrate in sort of mainstream American culture, and that would be familiar to all of us, but how they actually, a lot of them do stem from land based traditions whether we realize it or not.

Eliza Blue:

Basically, I want to dig back into the stuff we already know as humans, digging back into the rituals and traditions that are already part of our culture. But somehow, the roots got severed from … It actually reminds me of when they’re plowing up the prairie grass, and they just were cutting through the roots. I feel like that’s happened to a lot of us with cultural traditions, where we still are practicing them, but what connected them to, again, those universal cycles and with the actual places that we live. And so the book is my story of starting to see what those traditions actually mean because I live on a farm and a ranch. So for example, Easter eggs, that fact that Easter … I mean, first of all, Easter eggs, when did that become a thing? Right?

Whitney Kimball Coe:

Right.

Eliza Blue:

But when you live on a farm, this is when the chickens start laying again. So we go from getting maybe one or two eggs a day, and then suddenly, it’s like boom, we’ll have 20 eggs a day. And it happens right now. Cool, right?

Whitney Kimball Coe:

Oh, that’s so great. That sounds like an incredible book. Well, what are you reading or listening to right now that’s just for you?

Eliza Blue:

Well, so I just got done with Active Hope, which was really great. I sort of, I mean, I’m always reading Wendell Berry. I feel like that will never not be something that’s important. And I’ll sort of go on these just really intense [crosstalk 00:21:55].

Whitney Kimball Coe:

Do you do the fiction, or the poetry, or the essays?

Eliza Blue:

Essays.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

Essays, yeah.

Eliza Blue:

Because essays are what I love. I mean, they’re so dense that I don’t know how my mind can keep being blown by him because I just keep thinking … I mean, he’s so brilliant. I know that, and yet, I’ll sit down with a new essay and it’s like, “Oh, he just did it again. He just blew my mind again.” And then, yeah, also Mary Oliver always, always Mary Oliver.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

Yeah. Well, those are all beautiful recommendations, and this conversation has been wonderful. And I’m so grateful that you pursued it, even though you have a cold. You seem very clear. [crosstalk 00:22:34]. No, no. So thank you so much for being on Everywhere Radio, Eliza.

Eliza Blue:

Oh, well, thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure to talk to you.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

You too. Thanks for listening. We’d like to thank our media partner, The Daily Yonder. Everywhere Radio is a production of The Rural Assembly. Our senior producer is Joel Cohen. Our associate producer is Anya Slepyan. And we’re grateful for the love and support of the whole team at The Center for Rural Strategies. Love you, mean it. You can be anywhere, we’ll be everywhere. Thanks for listening.