If you were listening to New West Records’ An Americana Christmas sampler over the holidays, you would have heard tracks from the likes of Dylan, Cash, Emmylou and other Americana legends. Tucked in alongside those songs was a catchy little number called “Everyone Deserves a Merry Christmas.” With wry lyrics about a jailhouse celebration and a chorus that begs for a sing-along (“Everybody deserves a Merry Christmas/It don’t matter what stupid things you’ve done…”), it’s an excellent introduction to Ronnie Fauss, if you’ve not had the pleasure of listening to this Texas singer already.
For those in the know, Fauss has been worth following for several years now. After several EPs, he released his full-length debut, I Am the Man You Know I’m Not, in 2012 on Normaltown Records, a New West imprint. Mouthful of a title and all, it was one of the year’s best debuts and showed off his songwriting skills and his penchant for grin- and tear-inducing songs.
Fauss released his follow-up, Built to Break, late last year, with no trace of a sophomore slump in sight. If anything, Break is a more ambitious and diverse-sounding record than its predecessor and has turned up on more than a few year-end best-of lists.
“I didn’t know if I could put something together that I liked as much as the first one, but once we started getting into it and saw the direction it was going, I almost started not liking the first one!” Fauss says with a laugh. “That’s not true, but I just really got excited about the new album. I feel like it came together well.”
Break was co-produced by Fauss and drummer Sigurdur Birkis, who also worked on his debut. That familiarity, he says, helped make him feel a little more sure-footed in the studio this time around and more vocal about the direction of the record. He also brought in a batch of excellent, well-written songs that stretch across the roots music genre, from full-blown Americana/rock of “Another Town” and “A Natural End” to a country duet (with Jenna Paulette) on “Never Gonna Last.” “Eighteen Wheels” is a driving song (in more ways than one) that sounds like something from the Old 97s catalog, so it’s no surprise that once it had been recorded, they decided to ask if Rhett Miller could sing a few lines.
“It was working out that he was going to be coming through Dallas while we were finishing up some of the recording,” Fauss says. “He’s been a big influence and a good friend, so it made sense on a lot of levels to get him involved.”
The songs themselves pretty much dictated the direction of the album, much to Fauss’ liking.
“That’s one of my favorite things about this record, is there is some really different sounds from track to track,” he says. “Never Gonna Last” is really country, but then there’s also loud rock and roll, and a really quiet folk song like “Come on Down” at the end. I just love that freedom to put together an album that doesn’t have a uniform sound.”
On an album full of highlights, “Come on Down” deserves special mention because it provides an honest look at the realities of a blue-collar life — unlike too many modern country songs, where a job is just an eight-hour break in an endless party. “This work will break our bodies,” Fauss sings, before adding the hopeful conclusion: “But it only builds our souls.”
Originally, “Come on Down” was written as a straight-ahead rocker and was transformed into a ballad in the studio. Showing the sure footing that comes from experience as a recording artist, Fauss helped steer the song away from something that he felt was becoming “too pretty.”
“It had this string section,” he says of the original arrangement. “That song is about such a gritty concept, and I wanted it to sound really gritty. It felt more honest to take a rawer approach.”
The final version features a simple 12-string guitar with touches of pedal steel, and it fits the song perfectly.
The most stunning song on the album, and the one Fauss considers its emotional anchor, is “The Big Catch.” Pieced together from several stories from people in his life, it shows how traumatic experiences faced in childhood — be it divorce, abuse, neglect or something else — can have lifelong consequences. Fauss can write an amusing or hopeful lyric as well as anyone, but “The Big Catch” is a devastating song, and one that hits home with anyone who’s struggling with the pressures of being a parent.
“It’s something that I’m hyper aware of, as a parent with 3 young kids,” he says. “I probably think of it too much, but whatever I’m saying and doing, I always have this mindset of what is it going to do to them, now and forever.
“I tried to paint it with broad strokes so that it could be applied to any of those types of situations,” he adds. “That is the most important song on the record for me. I wanted it way up front. Sometimes songs at the end can get lost, and I wanted to make sure that one was heard.”
Since Built to Break was released, it’s garnered widespread praise. Texas Monthly, for one, included “A Place Out in the Country” as one of its Top 40 songs of the year. It’s also boosted his profile; immediately before this interview, he had an appearance on the famed “World Café” radio show to talk about his Christmas song and the new album. He spent most of the fall touring throughout his home state, as well as the occasional show in California and Colorado, and this year looks to bring more of the same.
Fauss has come a long way from recording and self-releasing his own EPs, though he still works as hard as any singer on the Texas circuit. The work hasn’t lessened, even now that he has the support of a well-regarded record label. It’s still a hustle, he notes.
“It’s got its moments that are really cool, obviously, but there’s also just so much driving in a cheap car, and eating gas station food, and staying at terrible hotels,” he says, though he adds the experience hasn’t left him jaded.
“What it made me feel was respect for people who have been doing it for so long and have had great success. It almost makes it impossible to ever feel jealous of someone who has really big name recognition, because after going through it a little bit, you know how hard they’ve worked and how long it takes to make it happen.”