Lee Penchansky, aka Lee Penn Sky, took the title of his self-released March 2015 album, 29 Left Down, from "The Big Branch Mine," his song about the 2010 Pike River Mine disaster in which 29 men were killed. He sees the incident as both a tragedy and an outrage.
"You have this event that is horrible and so tragically sad and indicting," Penn Sky said. "It's so preventable. And there's that whole circus around that thing—'We know four are dead, but we know that 25 are alive in the safe room.'" This whole heartbreaking trip that we all took collectively through the media to find out, 'Actually, we've walked by these dead bodies several different times.' ... This place was in such disrepair that they didn't even see the bodies."
29 Left Down (produced by Audio Lab Studios' Steve Fulton) isn't about wallowing in anger or despair, though. Local artist Heather Bauer's album cover art—an encaustic image of flowers growing from skulls buried in the ground—suggests something more complex.
"That's a horrible event and we need to be reminded of it," Penn Sky said, "but it's not the only thing to life, and it's not the only thing about this album. This album is this rise and fall—there's good and bad. So these skulls are really seeds for these flowers. It's really kind of this cycle. That's the concept of the album and the concept of the cover of the album."
The other 12 songs on 29 Left Down flesh out Penn Sky's concept. Combining plain-spoken, compassionate lyrics with soothing folk melodies and gently funky rhythms, the album mixes reflections on social injustices and life's disappointments with an appreciation of family, friends and the Idaho landscape. Penn Sky released the album on March 29 during his Treefort Music Fest set with his band, The Oliphants.
- JL Photography
Penn Sky knows from personal experience about good coming from bad. Originally from Ann Arbor, Mich., the singer-songwriter had played in a band while in college. However, he didn't start singing, writing songs or playing guitar seriously until after he was almost killed in a 2001 accident..
At the time, Penn Sky was working for a wilderness treatment program for children in Gooding, Idaho.
"I stopped to help somebody on the highway going over this huge pass," he remembered. "They were rolled over. I was responding to them, and a car came off and drilled me. I had to be Life Flight-ed, and I had eight surgeries on my leg. Long story short, I could no longer do those physical [tasks] that I moved up here to do."
As part of his recovery, Penn Sky began wandering alone through the Idaho desert. He also channeled his energy into making music.
"That's when I wrote my first album [Prelude to Hindsight (Parker's Records, 2005)]. All the songs on my first album were from that time period of recovery and loneliness and starting to feel some of that association with the land," Penn Sky said. He began performing locally and playing such festivals as Denver's Underground Music Showcase and Spokane, Wash.'s Fall Folk Festival, but he didn't release a follow-up to Prelude until this year. The 10-year gap between albums was due to a lack of money as well as focusing on raising his two children.
"That kind of derails you," Penn Sky said of parenting, "but it also sets you up for some beautiful and wonderful things that you would not have [expected]."
Penn Sky values the wonderful and unexpected in music as well. He credited the other members of the Oliphants, bassist Troy Ferguson and percussionist Jake Englehorn, with bringing out new elements in his songs.
"When we play live, we kind of become a jam band," he said. "Because I want that stuff to come out. I want everybody to have that expression. ... We're listening to each other, we're letting it go places."
Steve Fulton helped take the 29 Left Down material to new places in the studio. He pushed Penn Sky to add, remove and rewrite different parts of various songs.
"He actually did challenge me to change quite a few things," which, Penn Sky said, he was uncomfortable with. When Fulton told him he needed to rewrite the chorus of a song, Penn Sky said, "What do you mean? This is the song. What're you talking about?" But he realized he had to "go through that process and see what's there."
Listeners can see and hear the result of that process soon. Penn Sky and the Oliphants plan to play events like the Yellow Pine Music and Harmonica Festival in the next few months, and he also hopes to have a more organized release show for the new album.
Whatever response to the new album he encounters, it probably won't faze Penn Sky.
"After literally almost dying, what're they gonna do?" he said, recalling his start as a singer. "What if they say, 'I don't like your voice?' What's that gonna do, kill me?"