Travis Ward is one of those lucky, crazy people compelled to walk through life with a storyteller's filter over his eyes. Perform an impromptu raid on the Boise-based singer-songwriter and you will likely find hands covered in inspired pen scribbles, pockets filled with fragmented melodies written on torn scraps of paper and a home insulated with piles of ink-heavy spiral notebooks. The sources: His stories, your stories (if you've happened to tell them), images or sounds from movies, books or songs--anything that strikes his seemingly bottomless sense of fancy. Ward is also a self-described "housewife" and father of two, who counterbalances occasionally performing at his daughter's preschool with writing hundreds (yes, hundreds) of songs about an antiquated world rife with drunkenness, homelessness and a high rate of patricide. Sound like a lot of balls to keep in the air? Ward sums up the chaos of his creative process in three words: "I'm a mess."
It has been 11 years since the lanky, bearded multi-instrumentalist wandered down to Boise from Sandpoint, where he had been, in his words, "wasting away" in drunken stagnancy. He was looking at Portland and Seattle but Boise won out when fate--albeit highly suspect fate--intervened.
"I knew a guy who was driving down to Boise, his buddy had a house and I could crash on the couch," Ward recalls. "It sounded perfect."
An imprecise choice perhaps, but apparently the right one, as Ward has since released four very precise full-length albums on his own Petometz Records label, has a fifth forthcoming in 2005 schedules enough shows with his accompanying Junkyard Bandstand (comprised of Justin Nelson on standup bass and Jason Ganz on drums) for it to be, along with fatherhood, his fulltime gig.
Like many Idaho musicians, Ward is quick to joke about apathetic crowds, meager pay and entire years when "nobody gave a shit" about his art. In the biography section of his Web site, he attributes JB's relentless obscurity to a spell cast upon them by an evil wizard. But recently, Ward notes, his torrents of words have finally begun penetrating the armor of Idaho listeners.
"People have been asking me about my lyrics," he says with a surprised, relieved grin. "Just a couple of weeks ago I was at a gig and this dude asked me, 'Have you ever killed anybody?'" Ward pauses, furrowing his brow incredulously. "Apparently, he was listening to the lyrics and thought, 'This guy must be writing exactly what his life is like.'" Such a validation of one's storytelling ability is a moment that every singer-songwriter relishes, but Ward's reply was nonetheless a quick, "That's just a song. I'm afraid of my shadow."
In the concert-goer's defense, though, the yarns spun by Junkyard Bandstand have taken a turn for the bloodthirsty in recent years. The group's latest release, the 2004 LP Flowers Don't Bloom: A Spaghetto Western, is a sinister, lyrically meticulous departure from the lighthearted country swing and sleepy instrumentals that characterized their previous album, 2002s Cobwebs in the Boxcar. Ward's writing still introduces a new character in a fresh but familiar state of rustic roguishness with every song, but he has nearly abandoned the persona of the charming, quotable ragtag musician who dominated Cobwebs. Now, Ward is locked in a Western no-man's land devoid of love and populated by haunted loners, daddies who are either dead or preparing to run away, an armory of weapons and, most pervasively, a mysterious authority threatening in numerous songs to send Ward's protagonists to "the farm." What happens there? It's never said. But only because nobody ever comes back.
Ward's voice, as well, has morphed over the last two years, from a friendly, affected Hank Williams drawl to an menagerie of pathetic bastards. The album's opener, "Before the Farm," finds Ward as a throaty, Richie Havens sound-alike dourly ranting about his impending incarceration with such machine-gun rhythm, he sounds as if the words are being beaten out of him. Another of Ward's creations, on the standout track "Whiskey Red's Shine Shack," creaks out a panicked, nasal warning that his location is "feeling like a tough town, man, and it's smelling like one." On the sultry ballad "I Move On (Dark Gospel)," Ward changes masks yet again, cooing a Ben Harper whisper laced with an accent of unknown origin.
Each voice is distinct enough to evoke backdrops thousands of miles apart, but Ward's greatest contribution to Idaho music is his ability to craft a perfect sentence, rhyme or list of objects to jerk a listener back into Western focus. He creates impressive, demanding and sometimes exhausting folk and country that is not just worth hearing, it's worth scrawiling on your hand, remembering and following. In Idaho, that degree of consistency is all too rare.
Travis Ward plays at Pengilly's Saloon on Feb. 25 and 26 at 9:30 p.m.