The Ruralists

In Features, Winter/Spring 2017 by Aleisa Dornbierer-Schat

The Ruralists meet for practices in the “Back Back” – the deepest room of Sioux Center’s main-street café, the Fruited Plain.

It’s the dark, dusty home to odds and ends: a green vintage chair, a few tables, a large lettered sign. There’s an old upright in the corner, a network of exposed pipes, and a makeshift stage. On this quiet Tuesday, the only suggestion of sound is a dim collection of amps and cords, several guitar stands, a stray set list.

It’s fitting space for a band that prides itself on the philosophy of “making do.”

“Here we are, in this ugly back room, taping things together, just making it work,” says Laremy De Vries (’02), who plays electric guitar in the band and owns the Fruited Plain. “It’s a kind of D.I.Y. approach to making music.”

“That’s at the heart of ruralism,” says lead singer-songwriter Luke Hawley, Dordt College English professor by day and Ruralist front man by night. “The idea is that you make do with what you have. You embrace the community you’re a part of, and you see what good can come from that.”

More than just a clever moniker, “ruralism” represents a kind of ethic—a deeply principled approach to living and producing creative work in a place that isn’t often associated with art or high culture.

So far, the constraints of small-town life haven’t limited the band’s early rise to success. The Ruralists have only existed for around six months, but they’ve already performed to enthusiastic crowds at a variety of regional venues. In October, the band was featured on NPR’s Sioux City affiliate, recording an hour-long segment that included live music. Since then, they’ve won and advanced in a regional Battle of the Bands competition, they’re at work recording an EP, and they continue to perform live for large crowds in tight spaces.

At the center of all this—the swelling noise, the sweaty crowd—is the band’s anchor and heart: Luke Hawley, holding his guitar, singing a song.

“Luke’s songs have a simplicity and an immediacy that is very rare. And very hard to do,” says Dr. Benjamin Lappenga, Ruralist electric guitarist and a theology professor at Dordt. “The craft of songwriting matters a lot to him, and as a fiction writer, he also knows what it is to tell good stories.”

Lappenga spent much of his twenties fronting a successful rock band in Seattle called Driving the Eights; now he studies biblical texts in their original languages and teaches Dordt students to do the same. As a songwriter himself, Lappenga admires “the ease with which Luke’s songs come off the page.”

Some are haunting. Some are about love (but not the simple, I-wanna-hold-your-hand kind). The lyrics are spare, but they usually tell a story. None of them are especially cheerful.

“I try to make jokes between songs,” Hawley says, “Just to lighten the mood a little.” Not that the shows are gloomy. There’s no arguing with the energetic guitar riffs or drumline. Most in the crowd bop up and down with the beat or break into dancing.

THE MAKING OF A STORYTELLER-SONGWRITER

Luke Hawley was fourteen when he first picked up a guitar. After years plunking out half-hearted songs on the piano, he’d finally convinced his parents to let him move on to a new instrument.

His younger brother, Caleb, followed suit. Hawley says, laughing, “I knew he’d be better at it than me.”

“My brother is a top-notch performer; he sells the whole show. And I don’t really have that,” he says. For the elder Hawley, it’s always been about the songs themselves.

“What I’m giving people, as a musician, is a song,” he says. He pauses, then laughs. “Honestly, I’m sort of a one-trick pony about all of this. I write songs. I play them on an acoustic guitar, and I don’t know how to do anything else. So, I do that as well as I possibly can. And for me, that means serving the song first.”

Hawley’s emphasis on the song itself has something to do with his early musical education in the church. He grew up the child of musicians, in a home rich in instrumental music, yet some of Hawley’s most formative musical experiences didn’t involve instruments at all. Hawley was raised in the acapella Church of Christ, where instruments are never used in worship. In place of an organ or praise band, the sanctuary swells only with voices, blending in four-part harmony.

“From the minute I could read the text, I also learned to read the notes,” Hawley says. His church experience even got him into a high school choir without an audition. “Once the choir teacher knew I grew up in the Church of Christ, she was like, ‘Okay—you’re in.’”

He credits the tradition with instilling in him a deep commitment to the importance of melody. “Somebody along the way told me if you can’t sing your song without instruments around it, then you don’t really have a song,” he says.

Hawley’s melodies are memorable, but as a fiction writer, his songs are deeply shaped by a storyteller’s sensibility. He first learned to appreciate the wedding of song and story traveling to summer folk festivals with his family.

“The folk genre is very narrative, centered on words and stories. And that’s what I was interested in—finding ways to tell stories. Well,” he says, pausing again to laugh, “that, and trying to get girls.”

Hawley began exploring the relationship between song and story in earnest in grad school. He’d been working on a novel, then set that aside to work on the collection of short stories that would eventually be published as The Northwoods Hymnal, winner of a 2014 Nebraska Book Award.

“At one point, I ran out of the stories I had to tell,” he says. He decided to try an experiment: he sat down with one of his favorite short stories, Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,” and wrote a song from the perspective of one of its peripheral characters, a blind man.

“It gave me a new way into the story—a different interpretive angle—to help me see what else might be there, just below the surface,” he says. Now, Hawley rarely writes a song “without some piece of fiction attached to it.”

Sometimes, an existing song will be the catalyst for a new short story. More often, he’ll get stuck on a story and use a song to “get out of the woods.” One of his favorite stories in Northwoods Hymnal was reborn this way. By compressing a 2,500-word story into a 200-word song, he was able to better distill its shape.

“The most important things rose to the surface. So, when I went back to the story, I had a better idea of where I was going,” he says.

Hawley brings this genre-hopping approach into his writing classes at Dordt. “One exercise I have my students do is take a nursery rhyme—like ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ or ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’—and put their narrative into that,” he says. Hawley encourages students to explore the variety of ways different genres can collide, or refract one another, and that way bring clarity—or suggest a new direction.

“When I get stuck, I find it helpful to jump back and say, ‘What would that narrative look like as a painting, or a song? A screenplay? How would that be different than a short story,” Hawley says.

Exploring the relationships between different genres has made Hawley a better writer, but it’s also been “a helpful gimmick for getting people to read short stories,” a genre nearly as underappreciated as poetry. His short-story collection includes a digital code inside its back cover, which readers can use to access recordings of the collection’s ten acoustic songs.

“When I used to perform solo shows in the Twin Cities, other artists would set up tables and sell CDs. I would sell books,” Hawley says. That the two genres are deeply knit together in Hawley’s work is just as evident now, when the Ruralists take the stage and perform Hawley’s songs for a crowd.

ART OUT OF CORNFIELDS

The Ruralists often open their show with “Ghost.” Hawley sits at the piano and strikes a single, haunting note, then begins to sing. Slowly, the band builds the sound behind the solo. As the volume rises, Hawley strikes the piano with more force, introducing new, more dissonant chords. At the height of the song, he nearly pounds the keys with his fists.

“I think of ‘Ghost’ as this haiku-ish little love poem,” says De Vries, who remembers considering the relationship between poetry, music, and truth in his philosophy classes at Dordt. One of his professors was the first to introduce him to songwriting legend Leonard Cohen.

De Vries likens Hawley to the poet William Carlos Williams, known for his spare lines and precise imagery. That likeness is especially evident in “Ghost.” Near the end of the song, the band falls away entirely; the audience grows suddenly aware again of its own breathing. Hawley closes with that one, plaintive piano note and the arresting image of two people, standing outside in the cold, their breath against the moonlight.

“Ruralism says that art does not belong only to the city, but it belongs to the country as well,” says Hawley. “That beautiful things come out of cornfields as much as they come out of fancy museums.”

For Hawley, “beautiful” has room for the hard, perplexing, even ugly parts of life.

“Art should tell the truth. It has to be honest. I think the badness of some Christian art has to do with wanting to see the world in a way that it isn’t. It comes down to a kind of willful ignorance—and that can be dangerous,” Hawley says. Honest art doesn’t shy away from the difficult parts of life. It engages them, giving them form and structure, yet leaving room for ambiguity and life’s unresolved questions. All art should do that, Hawley says, whether it takes up explicitly Christian themes or not.

“That’s a dualism I reject. I see good songs—and good stories—as coming from the Creator of all good things. There is very little that’s overtly Christian about my creative work,” he says. “Ultimately, I am interested in making the best, truest, most beautiful and precise art that I can make. That is how I know how to worship.”

Hawley brings that understanding into his classroom, too. Whether he’s guiding students through a work of literature, or sitting at a table with them as they workshop their own drafts, he encourages students to consider why we tell stories in the first place.

“As a songwriter and storyteller, I recognize that we’re made up of the stories we tell—and live,” Hawley says. He encourages students to use stories to work through questions. “I tell them, this is how I work

through things. I sit with questions, or I sit with sentences banging around in my head, and I try to write my way through those questions in a way that makes some sense.”

Good stories don’t offer simple conclusions, but as he teaches his students, they can help us understand who we are. Many of Hawley’s songs and stories explore the deep connections between place and identity. Some take up themes like loneliness and isolation, the value of community, or the ordinary happiness of family life.

While Hawley doesn’t aim to make “Christian” art, questions about God invariably find their way in. The Ruralists often perform “My Father’s Favorite Hymn,” one of the songs collected in Northwoods Hymnal. In that song, Hawley, takes the refrain “It is well with my soul” from an old, well-loved hymn and puts it into a song about a character digging up his father’s grave in Michigan, traveling with it across four state lines, and burying it in the “Minnesota snow.” In songs like this one, spiritual themes aren’t packaged as neat messages. Still, his songs point toward hope.

“Art tells the truth, right? And sometimes I have to check myself and remember: there’s a lot of hope in the truth,” Hawley says. “I’m interested in writing about how people cope, and how people hope. That’s my offering to God—doing that small thing as well as I can.”