By Mia Hughes
“You never can say whether or not your music is timely, but I think sometimes, music needs to be a catalyst for people’s awareness,” says Kentucky songwriter S.G. Goodman. She’s telling MTV News about “Work Until I Die,” a cut from her newest album, Teeth Marks. “Trapped in the rhythm, you’ll work until you die,” she sings with her unmistakable drawl. The track, which she developed with long-time collaborator Matt Rowan, has country roots with a punk bite, like Fugazi doing Woody Guthrie. Goodman was inspired by the union songwriting of Florence Reece’s 1930s anthem “Which Side Are You On?,” yet it’s delivered with the singalong sensibilities of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.” All said, it’s a classic Southern protest song, delivered at a moment when it’s sorely needed.
“I graduated with a philosophy degree, and as you could imagine, the job market in Western Kentucky for philosophers was not something you could really find that much on Indeed,” says Goodman, who was raised and still resides in the state. “So I worked a lot of manual-labor jobs, a lot of restaurant jobs, and even though there’s a lot of honor in that type of work, it’s not really respected in our society. I’m a granddaughter of a union man, and Kentucky has a long history with standing up for workers’ rights.”
The album, Goodman’s second, is a treasure trove of rustic rock songwriting, which spans political calls to action and intimate heartbreak ballads. Key to the record is its Southern sonic identity, which stems from Goodman’s genuine love for her home.
“I’m a farmer’s daughter. My childhood was in Hickman, a small town of less than 3,000 people. No fast food, no Walmart or anything like that. I just spent a lot of time outside and working on the farm and being a kid,” she recounts. “As I’ve gotten older and been to a lot of places and met a lot of people, I have come to realize that being raised in a rural community isn’t an experience that a lot of people have. I’m proud of where I come from and appreciative of how it shaped me, and I think I have an insider look into a worldview that people don’t understand.”
Goodman grew up Southern Baptist, attending church three times a week. Her first exposure to music was the hymns she heard there, and as she explains, it’s key to her songwriting and her powerful voice to this day. “Because I don’t have any classical training when it comes to music, I associate different parts of music with people that I was raised around in my congregation. It shaped how I sing, and my sense of melody, and what style of melody evokes emotion [for me]. So much of modern music, when you break it down, formed from the way old hymnists wrote their melodies, and I can’t deny that that is present in my own work.”
Meanwhile, she was introduced to classic rock by her dad and older cousins, and was also inspired by singer-songwriters she heard on the radio like Sheryl Crow and Natalie Imbruglia. As she got older, friends at high school showed her alternative rock and punk bands like Against Me!, Fugazi, and The Clash. Around this time, she was beginning to realize she was gay, which clashed with the tenets of her conservative religious upbringing. She pursued a philosophy degree hoping it might lead her to some answers.
“I was really interested in the concept of free will,” she explains. “That was a burning question of mine, especially when I came to terms with my sexuality. Because the concept of free will and predestination and these types of things, if I overlaid them on the doctrine that I was raised on, it was kind of an interesting concept to believe that I was created to go to hell.”
In her college town of Murray, Kentucky, Goodman began frequenting Terrapin Station, a record store and DIY venue in a strip mall. There, she started to develop her own craft as a performer and feel more at home in her identity. “It was a little subculture in a rural area. Because it was such a small community, it really wasn’t a thing where you could necessarily be genre-specific on a bill. It was a great meeting place for people from all different walks of life and different backgrounds and identities.”
We hear the impact of this musical diversity on Teeth Marks, in the sweet harmonies of the title track, the rollicking garage rock of “All My Love Is Coming Back to Me,” and the ’70s-esque heartland rock of “The Heart of It.” As well as capitalism and worker’s rights on “Work Until I Die,” she poignantly explores the opioid crisis on “If You Were Someone I Loved,” followed by the sparse and hymnal “You Were Someone I Loved.” Trauma and its lingering effects are examined on “Dead Soldiers” and “Keeper of the Time,” and intercutting all of this are raw, affecting breakup songs, such as “Heart Swell” and “Patron Saint of the Dollar Store.”
What ties the project together is the motif of love — whether it’s the lost romance of a faltering relationship, or the need for compassion in our politics and social conflicts. “I think it’s funny how people continue to create songs around [love],” Goodman says with a laugh. “I mean, it’s kinda ridiculous to write a song about love knowing how many songs are out there. But even though we’re experiencing the same themes, we’re experiencing them in different ways. I think what I found to be so evident to me after writing Teeth Marks was how [from] either the presence or the lack of love, we’re walking around with the marks of that on us. The way we act with others is from a place of how well we’ve been loved or how we haven’t been.”
For her part, over the course of writing this album, Goodman has been navigating the complexities of being an out queer artist from a conservative background. In a recent interview with The Bitter Southerner, she says that since the release of her debut album two years ago, she’s received social media messages from members of her community who have a problem with her sexuality. She’s been trying to approach this with love, too. “It’s not that I’m giving people a get-out-of-jail-free card. But because I am aware of the context they are raised in and their limited worldview, because I have had my own dealings with coming to terms with my own limited worldview, I have to apply a lot of grace there,” she says. “It would be absolutely hypocritical of me not to. And it’s not really a very trendy thing to do right now. The trendy thing to do would just be to cancel people and cut people out. But for me, I don’t think that is a very loving way to go about understanding other people.”
It’s this outlook that’s at the core of Goodman’s music. Teeth Marks is an album that digs in deep in search of better understanding and love. It’s a catalyst; or, at the very least, a vital reminder.
- S.G. Goodman