Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Vincent Neil Emerson is a Choctaw-Apache Country musician from Texas. His new album, “The Golden Crystal Kingdom,” produced by Shooter Jennings, was released on November 10, 2023.
Enjoy our conversation about Indian Relay Racing, being self-taught, and the bounty of new, old-style music out now.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: Can you tell me about you? Just basic facts, and maybe a little bit about where you grew up.
Vincent Neil Emerson: I’m from East Texas. I was raised in a small town out there called Canton. I’ve been playing music for over a decade now, maybe even 13 years. I’ve lived all over Texas, North and South. I’ve moved around the state quite a bit.
DY: Was music a big part of your childhood? Or how did you come to it?
VNE: Yeah, my grandfather, he listened to a lot of old Country music, so I was around that growing up. But I didn’t really get into playing music myself until I was around 17. And then I’ve been doing it since.
DY: How’d you learn?
VNE: I had this old chord book, a Mel Bay’s chord book that just basically showed you all the shapes and stuff. And I kind of taught myself. I had a friend of my sister’s that taught me how to play a little bit, too, but I mainly just self-taught.
DY: When and how did you decide to make your Indigenous roots a bigger part of your songwriting?
VNE: It’s always been a big part of my life, but for the first record I put out, I didn’t really incorporate it into my music or share it with my fans. But then the second album I put out, I wanted to write a song that told the story of my tribe and where we come from. I wanted to shine a light on that. And since then, a lot of Indigenous people and filmmakers, and artists and musicians have supported me and I’ve found a real community in that identity.
DY: Is there a significant overlap between that community and Country-music oriented spaces you’ve been in?
VNE: You know, there’s not a lot of Indigenous people in Country music. Not who are at the forefront of it, at least. But I’ve been really lucky to meet other artists in similar genres. There’s a guy named William Prince, who’s First Nations. He lives up in Canada and he’s one of my favorites. Leo Rondeau, who lives in Austin, he’s another Native guy that’s making music. There are a lot more people who I can’t remember off the top of my head. But to answer your question, yes, there is but there’s not enough of us at the forefront of it.
DY: I watched the music video for your single, “Little Wolf’s Invincible Yellow Medicine Paint,” and I found it so beautiful and moving. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the creation of that music video and your vision for it. Or, if not your vision, then whoever was involved.
VNE: Yeah, so for that one, I never really had a great idea for a music video. I wasn’t sure what we wanted to do with it, exactly. But, you know, I got real lucky and I met Mike Vanata who does Western AF, which is a great YouTube channel that does a lot of performance videos for artists. He’s become a good buddy of mine over the years. So, I wish I could take credit for it, but it was his idea to incorporate Indian Relay Racing into the video. He knows Sharmaine Weed, and he asked her to star in the video.
DY: So she’s actually a relay racer?
VNE: She is, yeah, she’s up on the Wind River Reservation up there in Wyoming.
DY: I’m interested in the part of your career where you were just playing a lot of shows in bars. What was your favorite stuff to play back in those days before you transitioned to playing mostly original music?
VNE: I used to play a lot of honky tonks and dancehalls and just little bars around Texas. Back when I started out, I had a handful of songs. But I was doing a lot of old country standards and covers and stuff like that. I’ve always been a big fan of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, and Texas musicians like that. But I always wanted to make an album of originals and write songs. So when I finally got a chance to do that, it was a good feeling. Over the years, I’ve built up an original set. So I’ve been doing that for quite a while now.
DY: You’ve put out three albums in what feels like a short time. Were all those songs pretty new at the time of production, or did you have a bunch of songs you were just waiting for the right time to put out?
VNE: The first album I did, “Fried Chicken and Evil Women,” I wrote most of those songs in my early twenties, when I was 22 or 23, and I didn’t get a chance to record them until I was 25. And then finally, we put the record out when I was 27 or 28. So I was sitting on those songs for quite a while, and I’d been playing them for a long time. And then I wrote most of the songs for my second record about a month before we went into the studio. Rodney Crowell produced that album. Since the first one, it’s just gotten easier to write songs and put them out faster.
DY: So by the time you were 27 and the first album came out, did you still identify with the songs you’d written when you were younger?
VNE: I still identify with the songs from back then. But, you know, over the years, people change and grow and I definitely am a different person than I was when I was in my early 20s. So now I’m a lot more interested in playing new stuff.
DY: How would you characterize the big differences between this album and your first two?
VNE: The first one was a honky tonk album, and the second one was more of a Folk record. That’s the way I describe it at least. The subject matter is more serious, you know, so it’s more of a singer songwriter album. This new one is kind of a mix of all the music I like. It’s a little Rock and Roll, a little Country, and some Folk all combined into one.
DY: What’s the song that you’re most excited for people to hear?
VNE: The one I’m really excited for people to hear is a song I wrote for my wife. It’s called “On the Banks of the Old Guadalupe.” I think that’ll be cool to show the world.
DY: What have you been listening to lately? Or maybe, what kind of music did you find inspirational when you were writing this album?
VNE: Around the time I was writing the songs I was listening to a lot of The Band, a lot of Bob Dylan, “The Basement Tapes” they did together. And then Neil Young and Stephen Stills, just a lot of that kind of roots rock stuff from back in the day.
DY: Is there anything that’s been on repeat lately?
VNE: I really love the band Fleet Foxes. I fly a lot and that’s my flying music. But other than that, Colter’s new stuff, Charley Crockett, there are a lot of great artists influencing me now.
I’ve always been a big fan of the older Country music, and the mainstream stuff that’s on the radio, a lot of that Country music doesn’t really do it for me. So it’s so cool to see guys like Tyler Childers and Sturgill Simpson and Charlie Crockett and Colter Wall and just a slew of other people come out and do cool, old-style music.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.