When Miranda Lambert brought the award-winning “The House That Built Me” to the public, plenty of people connected with the internal heartache and loss of self that the song represented.
To the men who wrote it, Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin, “The House That Built Me” began to look a bit like a metaphor for the country they live in. America finds itself in a horrendously chaotic period. New, random acts of incomprehensible, savage violence — from Orlando to Nice, France — are piped into homes almost daily. The working class feels abused by the corporations they work for, while the political class dithers, beholden to those same corporations. The 2016 election cycle finds the nation with a choice between two presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, who are disliked and untrusted by the bulk of the electorate.
“The House That Built Me” is now one of four songs in Shatter the Madness, a video series that connects the dots for that-honorable, blue-collar guy who’s still trying to support his family and stay true to the values that were instilled in him in his youth. The videos have been released weekly on Tom Douglas’ website with the final one going public on July 22, the day after the Republican National Convention closes.
“It’s not really about marketing or branding,” says Douglas. “We just feel such a heaviness for our culture and for our country.”
The four songs — “The House That Built Me,” “Legacy,” “Good Man Gone Bad” and “Shatter the Madness” — don’t necessarily have a solution to the toxic environment of 2016.
“I’m a much better question-asker than I am an answerer,” says Douglas.
But the self-funded exercise is one that does what “The House That Built Me” suggests: It put both writers back in touch with what drove them to pursue their profession in the first place.
“Up until I was 25 or even later, I never really thought of [music] as a commodity,” says Shamblin. “Music was healing. It was medicine. It was what took me by the hand and walked me through difficult seasons in my life.”
Thus, at a time when violence, protests, racial tensions and clashes between the police and the public are dredging up-memories of the 1960s, Shamblin and Douglas essentially have done what the artists of that era did by using their music to make a cultural statement about what Douglas refers to as “the divided states of America.” The last video features marching protesters, striking union workers, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the attack on the World Trade Center. All of those images in some way represent unrest between different factions of society. While the country genre deftly has avoided controversial topics, particularly in its recent party state, Douglas and Shamblin are — like their musical predecessors in the ’60s — wading knee-deep into the muck, reviving that original intent to make a difference with their art.
“Music throughout history has always led,” says Shamblin. “The musicians, the drummers, the piccolo players — whoever — were put in the front of the army going into battle. Music inspires, it encourages, and it helps to enlighten, and so I am aware that in times of great strife and turmoil, music has played a part in transitions, from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan and on and on.”
In fact, in “Good Man Gone Bad” — a song about an idealistic working man who has grown disillusioned with a system in which “you play by the rules and you’re the clown” — Douglas references a few lines from Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” reclaiming America as a place that’s “made for you and me.”
“This is not some politician’s country, this is not some Wall Street guy’s country, this is our country,” says Douglas. “That’s the lineage of Jimmie Rodgers, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Dylan and [Bruce] Springsteen. I mean, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without Woody Guthrie. That’s one of the greatest American anthems that has ever been written.”
Many middle-class Americans view their country with sadness now, not only because it’s under increasing attacks of terrorism, but also because of the volume of atrocities. With media now a national commodity more than a local one, the 24/7 news cycle feeds on tragedy. If it’s not citizens and cops at odds in Baltimore, Dallas or Ferguson, Mo., it’s a child being swallowed by an alligator or videos of beheadings in the Middle East.
“The worst possible things going on around the world are literally at our fingertips on our iPhones or our [cell] phones,” says Shamblin. “It’s a river of atrocity that flows through those phones or our computers every day, and so we’re definitely more inundated with that kind of news than ever before.”
Because the carnage is so constant, the psyche really never has an opportunity to heal.
“These tiny paper cuts of tragedy add up to a huge weight of despair, a huge weight of hopelessness,” says Shamblin. “That’s what we’re experiencing right now.”
Tellingly, perhaps, the most moving image in the Shatter the Madness-initiative is a heartening one: a young man in a salmon shirt (Douglas’ 22-year-old son, Tommy) simply holding — treasuring — his baby on a front porch. Amidst the turbulent footage, that quiet, reflective moment is powerful.
“There’s an innocence there and a pointing toward the future, because our children are our hope for the nation,” says Shamblin. “On some level, we’re concerned about the future of our children. There’s an unsettledness in the world, and to see all that hope in that little baby and that young man, it’s just love and hope. I mean it just shines through.”