Grizzly Adams Meets Tom Waits

Giving the Mattress Giant a run for his money? Ben Weaver at ease in the hobo jungle
Darin Back

In 2000, Ben Weaver dropped out of civilization. He and a girlfriend moved into an old hunting shack on the banks of Lake Superior, about eight miles from the nearest town. After the relationship went south and the girl departed, Weaver stayed on up north. He rented a yurt--essentially a teepee with wooden walls--from a local hippie couple for three months. It was in the middle of a field. It had a woodstove, but no running water.

"I don't like people," explains Weaver on a recent weekday afternoon. The singer-songwriter is seated on the upstairs porch of his apartment in the Whittier neighborhood of Minneapolis, where he's lived since returning from the woods two years ago. "I don't even like small towns. I like to be alone." He's dressed in jeans and a plain white T-shirt. His scruffy beard and ever-present American Spirit cigarette can't quite conceal his baby face. The 25-year-old Eugene, Oregon, native speaks haltingly, avoiding eye contact. His Siberian husky, Lucky, sleeps nearby.

Weaver's predilection for isolation is reflected in his music. His fourth album, Stories Under Nails, released last month, is an eerie concoction full of minor chords, pedal steel guitar, and a bizarro percussion section that includes a mailbox and a Dr. Pepper sign. The album evokes cold, windy nights spent alone in a northwoods cabin--or perhaps a yurt.

"We pretty much did the whole fucking thing in two days," says Weaver of the recording session, which was produced by Rank Strangers' frontman Mike Wisti. "It was all pretty fresh and pretty uncut and pretty raw. It's not blues. But it's the blues mentality. You just play--and if it feels right it probably is right."

As with Weaver's previous albums, his gruff bass vocals dominate the proceedings. Yet there's something notably different about his delivery this time around. On prior recordings, Weaver has come off like something of a carnival barker, gleefully shouting out the freak-show highlights. It was impossible to listen and not think of Tom Waits. But on Stories Under Nails Weaver's vocals are weary, somnolent, like a reluctant growl rumbling up from deep inside. It's a voice that gets under your fingernails and inside your head. Goth-country weirdo Johnny Dowd comes to mind.

Weaver's songs are lyrically dense. The words pour forth like lava, steadily and ominously, packed with gritty images and metaphors. The world of Weaver's songs bears little resemblance to contemporary America. Men ride mules and live in salt-box shacks and spend half a day walking to town. The landscape is unremittingly bleak, filled with dashed hopes, destroyed lives, and loveless relationships. "I wish I had a million bucks so I could at least say I threw it all away," Weaver moans on "Old Mission." "Now my life is pitch black and I'm just counting down the days."

Weaver's songwriting and vocal chops have not escaped the notice of critics. Stories Under Nails recently received four stars from Rolling Stone--the German edition, that is. Despite, or because, of the distinctly American quality of Weaver's music, it has garnered more praise on European soil than at home. The British press has repeatedly hailed his albums as rough-hewn gems, with Mojo naming each of the last two releases "Americana album of the month." He has a record deal in France, and this summer conducted a four-city tour of Australia, playing at sold-out pubs. "It's a beautiful country," he says. "They don't honk their horns."

Weaver wouldn't complain, however, if his cosmopolitan successes were balanced by a bit more hometown acclaim. "My dream is to not have to fly 10 hours to play to more than 20 people," Weaver says. To that end, in recent months he's been touring rigorously in the U.S. In July he played 15 West Coast dates, and earlier this month he gigged across the South. It seems to be working. No Depression magazine is running a profile of him in an upcoming issue, and he will soon be featured on a segment about up-and-coming songwriters on CBS News Sunday Morning. Weaver hopes that such attention will lead to a U.S. label deal for his next album.

If not, he can always retreat back to the woods. After two straight years of city living, Weaver occasionally yearns for a life of seclusion. "I miss the country and miss being in the woods," he says. "Just being out in the woods running a chain saw is my favorite job--other than being a musician."

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