Avi Vinocur(photo: Scott Padden)

Avi Vinocur has a few people he wants to thank. A San Francisco judge, whose name he can't remember, is one of them. Rachel Maddow is too, but we'll get to that.

Early last year, Avi's grandfather was dying. Avi had jury duty. He wasn't sure the "dying grandparent" story was going to fly with the judge in charge of the case, but he gave it a shot. He had to. "I...explained to him my grandfather was sick and I wanted to go to LA, and he just let me go."

Just like that. Avi didn't even wait to consider his luck. "I got in my car, drove back here, took a cab to the airport, got to LA, spent the evening with him, and the next day he was gone."

He's retelling this story by the light of a large window in his San Francisco apartment, CNN playing on the TV, the volume barely discernible. Avi's biological father passed in his early childhood, so his grandfather — Grandpa Jim, he calls him — served as a male role model. “I used to spend part of my summers in Georgia as a kid at their house with a big pool,” he says. “Miss [him] a lot.”

He got to his mother's house, where Grandpa Jim was, in time for The Rachel Maddow Show. Grandpa Jim was a devoted fan, and they tuned in together for what would be the last time. His mom snuck a picture of the two of them watching it side by side, and he posted it on Instagram.

The next morning, he had a message waiting for him.

"I got a Facebook message from a guy at MSNBC saying 'Hi, Rachel wants to do something nice for you...what can we do for your grandfather?’ She sent a picture from her office — she's holding up a sign that reads 'Hi Grandpa Jim, Love Rachel.' "He didn’t get to see it, but it would have blown his mind," he says. That same day, Maddow interviewed Vice President Joe Biden on air. “And she took time to write us," marvels Avi. "Crazy.”

All this to explain that, despite the deep divisions recently drawn through the American populace, there's still good out there. He's seen it. He's felt it. From Rachel Maddow, of all people. That stew of anger and uncertainty that blankets the US these days came together to form his stormy new album, No Cause For Alarm, which pinpoints this precise moment in American history.

Avi’s an expert at delivering the songs of other people. In its quest to capture the spirit of the country in 2017, No Cause For Alarm distills some very essential human feelings so well that it’s hard to believe he’s making it all up. But that’s what he’s always done: For the last five years, he’s written stories of coal-miners and bank robbers; Civil War soldiers and rumrunners in Americana outfit Goodnight, Texas. Before that, he was writing songs like "I Killed Robert Johnson," which ended up being recorded with his former band, the Stone Foxes. He even, whether he knows it or not, does it real life — he’s blessed with the ability to look unironic in a flannel and snapback at a Montana watering hole while on tour with Goodnight, Texas, or like he’s just fending off the fog of the Sunset with some layers while home.

Avi's initial intention was simply to write a poem a day at the dawn of 2017, to vent his personal frustrations and exercise his craft outside of the strict historical themes that permeate Goodnight, Texas. He turned those poems into songs. The result is a deeply unsettled album, a restless scrapbook of the country’s current tumult. Performed entirely by him, it sags under the weight of minor keys, trembling tones, and bleak stories of death, criminality, and staggering loss. Opening with the whiskey-washed “Mixing Messages and Alcohol,” the record rolls through nine tracks told from other people’s perspectives, all of them in some type of turmoil. “The Walls of Michigan” is a wistful ode to an ex, and the album closer is a cinematic, wholly upsetting goodbye song, that, true to established Vinocur form, is built upon a distant Wild-West whistle. The high lilt of the refrain conjures up dry brush and tumbleweeds; empty heartland highways slicing into a setting sun. Like something better and more beautiful is just past his line of vision.

Because, he believes, it is. “With Goodnight, Texas, we’ve met people in very small towns, people who have a completely different set of political beliefs and upbringings and lifestyles, but ultimately there are kind people everywhere,” Like Rachel Maddow. And that nameless San Francisco judge.

“But yeah, you have to go talk to these people. I think there’s not a lot of that going on. Not a lot of conversations. It’s easy to just get frustrated and jump to conclusions — lord knows I do; I get very frustrated with some of the shit going on — but yeah. You just gotta talk to people.”

Perhaps the only song on the album culled directly from experience is “Blizzard (It Is What It Is),” a wrenching blow-by-blow of his attempt to attend his Goodnight, Texas bandmate’s father’s funeral in New Jersey, just as a blizzard buried the East Coast. Having toured extensively with Patrick Dyer-Wolf, guitar and vocals in Goodnight, Texas, for the last five years, he'd worked up a friendship with Pat's dad. “I tried very hard to get out there," he says. “It just wasn’t possible, and I wish I could have been there.”

Patrick inadvertently contributed the chorus. "I guess the last time his dad spoke was the evening we were [on tour] in Portland...I didn’t find that out until a little bit later, and I was just like ‘Oh my God, buddy.’ And he was just like, ‘Ah, it is what it is. What the hell can we do?’...He’s always very forward; he’s careful with words, and it seemed so off-the-cuff and genuine.”

He never told Pat’s family about the song. He never even told Pat. But they can probably figure it out.

Even when he’s stepping in the shoes and clothes and brains of other people, his stories still ring devastatingly true. “There comes a time where it’s like, what’s the difference between a story and reality?” he says. “There wasn’t any specific person that lived in Michigan and had a girlfriend that ran away to Colorado with someone. But there, like, probably is.”

Even when he’s working solo, he’s still not wholly himself. But, creatively, to be somebody else is to be Avi Vinocur.

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