Adam McNulty still talks a mile a minute, thoughts on music and marriage and spirituality and life flittering through his mind like great black flocks of birds blotting out the sun.
There is a pattern, however, to the arc of their flight. Four years ago, he was consumed with both anger and recklessness, the former at religion and the latter a path that eventually would threaten to unravel his marriage. Over the past year, he’s put in a lot of work on himself, and the end result is a new record by his band, Guy Marshall (named after his grandfather), which releases a new record (“The Love We’ve Made and Otherwise”) this weekend at The Outpost.
“I’m one of these people, I’ll put myself out there almost too much,” he told me this week, walking laps around a fitness center track where he had just completed time on a stair climber. “Sarrenna (his wife and Guy Marshall bandmate) has always been a person who’s been like, ‘Walk with care.’ I’ve always been the person who will tell you everything about me, the good and the bad, and that sometimes scares people.
“It’s almost like I want to scream out that I’m a piece of (crap) at times, and I don’t know why that is, if it’s a self-deprecating thing or what. Sarrenna holds her cards closer to the vest, and when I first played her ‘I Don’t Try’ (the second track on the new album), she said, ‘Adam, that’s kind of messed up. I don’t know if you should sing that in front of people.’ But that’s who I am. I tell my family and friends everything, although these days I try to keep a little back for the sake of my wife.”
“The Love We’ve Made and Otherwise” throws caution to the wind, and if the album artwork by Brandon Langley — featuring a bloody McNulty on the other side of display glass staring longingly at his near-naked wife — isn’t enough to put fans on notice, the songs themselves certainly are.
“Most of the songs, I wrote for her,” he said. “I made some stupid decisions that almost cost me my marriage, to the point where I was having physical nightmares about them. I realized the dumb things I was doing had almost manifested these nightmares I was having, and then a song like ‘Love’ is about me feeling like I’ve taken a ton from Sarrenna at times without giving much back. The whole point of that song is that I’m a taker, or at least that’s how I felt at the time.”
The harmonies by the couple bring to mind another tumultuous duo: Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, and the exquisite dance their voices do is just as gorgeous. Backed by longtime guitarist Eric Griffin, who helped the couple establish the band in the beginning, along with rhythm section Travis Bigwood and Zach Gilleran (as well as guitarist Joshua Manis), the pair has built a country record that’s both mournful and beguiling. With steel guitar and loping rhythms, the band (along with producer Will Carter) paints deepwoods backdrops against which the lyrics resonate with all of the sorrow and breathtaking beauty of a loon’s cry across a midnight lake.
“This one, it’s really different than the last album,” McNulty said. “I feel like this album has very individual parts that are like layers, and as everyone has gotten older and nestled a little bit into who they are, you can hear more individuality on this album than you could on the other one (2015’s “Depression Blues”). Now, almost everybody is more comfortable in their own skin, and I think that’s helped the creativity in a way. It’s more of a band vision now.”
Aside from a couple of contributions, however, the lyrics are all McNulty’s, a responsibility he’s grateful that his bandmates have allowed him to bear. And it’s a blessing, he added, that his wife — who works at Eden Salon and Spa in Alcoa — stands by his side when he sings these vulnerable insights into a soul once fractured but slowly coming back together.
“Things came out of me that I didn’t know were in me when I was writing these songs,” he said. “I write songs very strangely. I’ll just be playing some chords or learning somebody else’s songs, and I’ll hear a chord progression go somewhere else, then I’ll start humming something and singing random stuff. That’s the magic to me. That’s when I realize, ‘I didn’t know this is how I felt.’ It helps me where I am spiritually, because more truth comes out of me sometimes when I’m just singing.”
It’s almost a subconscious release, and in seeking help for his bipolar disorder and recommitting himself to be a better husband, he’s discovered something else: The need to tap into those deep wells of darkness isn’t so insistent as it once was. In the past, it almost felt like he didn’t have a choice — the intense emotion within needed an outlet, and songwriting was the medium for its release.
Now that’s he’s happier and healthier and has a new record with one of the finest bands to come out of the local scene, he’s a little stumped about what comes next, he said with a laugh.
“We’ve grown more over the past year and a half than we’ve ever grown, and it’s a whole different marriage,” he said. “But now that I have this settled heart, I find myself wondering, how am I going to write the next album? I’ve never written happy songs! So where do I go with this now that I don’t have a heavy heart?
“I always looked at myself as the typical ‘tortured artist,’ but I saw something about (Wilco frontman) Jeff Tweedy the other day, who was in the same situation. He’s figured out how to not be that person, and that’s helped me realize that I don’t have to do any of that stuff anymore to write a good song. I thought that was part of it — being a complete (screwup) to make good music, but it’s much better to have a good home life and a good marriage and some peace of mind.”