Highway Driving: Kalyn Fay’s Oklahoma Road Music

Cruising the deep and dank backwoods of Oklahoma a couple of days ago, I had the latest album from Tulsa’s Kalyn Fay, Good Company, playing at a moderate volume; the more I settled into it,  the more I began to realize her dark voice was guiding my own wandering spirit that afternoon.

She claims she was a late-bloomer when it comes to her songwriting, but when one actually listens to her rough-hewn words and music on Good Company, it’s very much as if she’s channeling an old spirit that has a lot to say about the ever-changing human condition. Fay has matured so far above what we’ve come to expect from many Oklahoma artists—so much so it’s kind of funny when she talks about how her first few songs were your typical “sappy love songs.”

“I think they were about the guy I was dating or had just broken up with, something like that,” Fay said. “I’m pretty sure falling in or out of love is the gateway drug of songwriting.”

I first met Fay a few years back at a protest against the cultural appropriation of Indigenous items by long-gone Oklahoma celebutaunts. While it was just a mostly sincere back and forth about the current goings-on, it was good to talk to a semi-local artist where you didn’t have to explain things and defend things and then apologize for things. It’s that otherworldly search for unadulterated truths, I feel, that fuels the unparalleled work of Fay.

“I value plain-spoken honesty,” Fay said. “Sometimes it is hard to find the right words, but it is never hard for me to be honest while writing. I’m sure my perspective may be different than others who experienced specific situations, but it is my honest truth.”

The best-fitting Oklahoma road album I heard in quite a while, Good Company is overflowing with honest truths that maybe some people couldn’t bear to hear. Fay told me that a few years ago she heard Lucinda Williams say that “we all have a well of experiences and that we can pull from those experiences instead of trying to continue living them.”

Good Lord, does that hit home, I think to myself.

“I really took that to heart, so yeah, these songs are about me,” Fay added. “They are glimpses into the past, thoughts of the future, remembrances of how I felt while I was moving around in Oklahoma, or my objectiveness on relational issues. I like to tell people they are about 90% true—we all have to fudge here and there.”

Pulled over at a Chickasaw Travel Stop to get a cup of coffee—their Colombian black is absolute tops, man—looking at the cover of the album, I noticed Cherokee writing on it. Staring out over the hills of the Oklahoma country as her song “Long Time Coming” comes over the speakers, I looked past the billboards and electrical poles, paved roads and broken-down barns, and thought about how it must have looked two-hundred or so years ago.

“I am very driven by my Cherokee heritage—there is so much of its influence that goes into my writing,” Fay said. “Though not all of my songs are about specifically Cherokee stories or existence, I was extremely shaped by my experience growing up Cherokee: the dances, the food, the family, the language, the stories…the land. I think all of this has played a huge part in the way I approach life, the way I think about land, space, people, moments in time, and that all comes full force in this record.”

Recorded in a confident three days, the songs on Good Company are a much-needed primer to the emotional story of the aforementioned land and people here, with Fay’s tales of working a dead-end job, wanting to get out of town and driving in the middle of the night universal, the stinging guitar of producer Jesse Aycock putting a near-perfect 1000-yard stare on each song. John Fullbright, Carter Sampson and other Okie luminaries also cast their die on the urgently languid album.

In the next few months, Fay will be performing around town here and there before she heads out to Salem, Massachusetts for a fellowship she’s just received. But, as I pulled into a random inlet to watch the sunset, the disc’s third spin coming to the penultimate end of my favorite song, “Fool’s Heartbreak,” I solemnly realized there’s very few singers or songwriters out there who’ll ever truly “get it” the way Fay does.

 I spent 28 years in Oklahoma; it’s seemingly boundless prairies and horizons… Oklahoma is my home, forever and always,” Fay surmised. “I feel so alive here, even with its faults…it is this unnoticed place that many people see as nothing special, but the lack of notoriety, the lack of understanding of it makes it even more special to me. It feels wild and magical, untouched by the rest of the world. You can find all the beauty you need if you’re looking for it. I think people just forget to look sometimes.”

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For more info including tour dates, visit https://www.kalynfay.com. Photos courtesy of Kalyn Fay.

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