My Songs About Topsoil Say What I Can't

Jack Richland

I'm not much of a talker. Never have been. But that doesn't mean I don't have a lot to say. It's just that, sometimes, I can't communicate what I'm trying to say with just words. I guess that's just how I am.

I was only 8 when we moved to the farm in North Dakota, but even then I had certain feelings about the topsoil—feelings that I did not know how to express. Back then, I didn't know where the emotions came from, much less how to put them into words. I was young, and had a lot to learn about myself, and even more about the chocolate brown soil that kept a whole mess of good people fed.


When I was a teenager, my feelings about the topsoil grew more intense. In my head, I saw just what I wanted to express as plain as day, but every time I tried to talk it out, it came out wrong. During this time, I hurt some people, but really I was only hurting myself. Without a way to channel my feelings, I spent most of my time brooding, stealing whiskey from my folks, getting into fights, and sometimes even cutting myself just to stop the pain inside.

As I lie in bed at night, my feelings for the black, nitrogen-rich soil were so strong it seemed like they would burst out of my chest.

It wasn't until my cousin Jimmy came to live with us that I saw a new path. Cousin Jimmy didn't bring much with him but a sack half full of clothes and a battered old guitar. After a couple weeks of bugging him, he taught me a few chords, and before a week was out, I spent more time with that guitar than he did. Over the years, I picked up a few more things, but I didn't need a lot of fancy learning to say what I needed to say about soil so rich you could put it to seed pretty much forever, as long as you correctly rotate the crops.

And I just started to sing. I started to sing about the topsoil, what it means to me, what feelings I had when I weeded it, everything. I don't even remember the words. All I remember was that it was like the song was just pouring out of me and it wouldn't stop. It was scary, but it felt right.


One of the pivotal moments of my life was the afternoon I played my first show at a Future Farmers of America convention. Some of the kids got it and some didn't, but I knew I was onto something when almost every single adult came up to me after the show with tears in their eyes, telling me, "You really said it." I had put into song something they'd felt their whole lives. One of those guys, Ned Rembach, even picked up his old banjo and started playing music again. He opens for me sometimes. He does a couple songs about detasseling corn that never leave a dry eye in the house.

It's funny when I look back at some of those early songs, like "Don't Blow Away (Don't Leave Me)," "Ten-Pound Fertilizer," and "Terra Cotta Planter (Alone In My Room)," I realize how simple the songs I was writing back then were. They had a certain charm, but as I've gotten older, my feelings toward topsoil have gotten more complex. So has my music. It used to be real simple folk and country blues stuff. The latest song, "Dirt Anchor," has a real jazzy feel to it with some complex horn charts that say more about my complex relationship with the dirt than anything else I've ever done.


Of course, I still struggle with my art. A couple of years ago, I was getting to the point where I thought I had said all I could say with music. Even so, my love for the soil still burned inside me. So I took a little break and went back to the family farm and started doing some abstract paintings. Two years and hundreds of dollars in burnt-umber acrylic paint later, I felt I had become pretty accomplished as a painter even though most people were more confused than excited by my richly textured, brown works.

The way I figure it, that's all a part of the creative process. Ever since that hiatus, I've come back to music feeling fully recharged, ready to dig deep and explore some feelings about topsoil I never even knew I had. I've had so much creative juice that I started a band just to perform my free-form, red-clay-soil compositions. We're called the Red Clay Rumblers, and we play Freddy's on Tuesdays, so come on out and see us. We've got T-shirts that sum up my ideology: When dirt is your muse, inspiration is only a few steps away.


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