On American Freedom and Its Fallout, and Big Wheel and Others

Dominic Angelella talks Cass McCombs’s epic on its 10th anniversary.

When someone remarks that a musician has a “cult following,” this usually comes with a certain amount of baggage. It’s a very Gen-X/Elder Millennial trait to mythologize the cult musician, though some unfortunate side-effects can come along with this label: career-centric glass ceilings, awkward opening slots for lesser musicians that heap dreaded “respect” upon you, and a fanbase of strange men with Matador or Drag City tote-bags wanting to talk a little too long about b-sides and alternate versions. However, the cult label can allow a musician freedom to operate outside of the accepted mainstream, following their own muse. Ideally, this freedom is used to create an idiosyncratic language, a special way of seeing the world. I have never heard someone say that Cass McCombs has a cult following, but this is how I feel about him — mainly because I feel that over the past two decades, McCombs has created a body of work that is totally singular. His songs, rife with symbolism and powerful narrative, share a way of looking at the world that feels helpful for everyday existence.

If it’s not clear by now, I am one of his strange, tote-bag carrying megafans. Through my years making music in professional and other-than-professional contexts, I’ve long tried to sniff out fellow enthusiasts of this nomadic singer-songwriter: anxious to discuss the layers of meaning in Cass’s lyrics, the verite recording process he seems to favor, and what the real message of 2009’s “Don’t Vote” is. Fellow Cass-heads are easy to find, and I’ve had many rewarding discussions with friends and strangers about favorite moments in his discography. However, I am surprised that through many of these conversations, what I consider to be his greatest work rarely comes up. His epic seventh LP, Big Wheel and Others — which turns 10 years old this month — feels almost insurmountable to discuss. In its nearly 90 minutes of music, Big Wheel is a powerful work about the American promise of freedom, and what happens when people attempt to search out this freedom for themselves. It’s a topic that McCombs has touched on for his entire career, but this record is where he goes deep.

Big Wheel and Others opens with an interview with a four-year-old who admits to casual marijuana use. The interview is taken from Sean, a 1969 documentary by director Ralph Arlyck, a neighbor of Sean’s in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. The short film is a portrait of a small child growing up at the tail end of hippie heyday. The Summer of Love had come and gone, and the once idyllic neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury had at this point fallen to harder drugs and hustlers, many young hippies having replaced their LSD with heroin or amphetamines. Though the scene had become chaotic and tumultuous, the film is free of any kind of judgment. Sean is allowed to speak for himself, telling Arlyck that he believes the whole world belongs to indigenous people and also that he hopes his dog will bite a policeman one day. 

Following Sean’s declaration that he prefers eating marijuana to smoking it is the album’s title track, “Big Wheel.” The truck driving protagonist of “Big Wheel” claims that he knows what it means to be a man, name-checking brand names of heavy machinery and looking for strings-free sexual encounters while fucked up on cheap speed. However, halfway through the song there is a turn. Amidst the boldfaced declarations of masculinity and independence, there is a joke: The narrator admits that he is five-foot-one. A short King David shouting at Goliath, proclaiming he has already toppled the giant. Suddenly, the song’s protagonist is no longer concerned with material excesses or status symbols. He moves to more abstract concepts; love, honor, and the peace of solitude. He has found his bliss, quoting Tommy Dorsey and the Grateful Dead as he drives far and alone through America. Throughout Big Wheel, we see characters like this trucker, portrayed in an objective light, even as they operate from the margins of society. This rogue trickster takes many forms on the record, appearing as a frugal cocaine-processing drifter in “Joe Murder,” a trash talking heretic in “Satan Is My Toy,” the Devil himself in “Angel Blood” and “Morningstar,” and as a regretful Casanova in the late-album Thin Lizzy cover “Honesty Is No Excuse.” Who better a stand-in for complicated masculinity than Phil Lynott? 

Also haunting this album is the idea of California, and the opportunity promised there. Since the gold rush, enterprising Americans have journeyed to the West Coast to stake their own claim, create their own life, and find a fortune. Most ended up dejected and strung out, whether they’ve been promised gold, fame, free love, or wealth through tech. What happens next is well documented: People drop out of society, join cults and adopt fringe beliefs that engulf their being, while a small group of wealthy individuals consolidate more power and capital for themselves. It’s easy to imagine Cass’s characters in Big Wheel as burnouts from any one of California’s get rich quick schemes, and it is refreshing to see them in a human light, not as a cautionary tale against greed or straying too far from the homestead. Whether these characters are to be judged or not is left entirely up to the listener. 

So what is the mission statement of this record, beyond documenting a very specific type of Californian? McCombs has gone on record about how explaining a song can spoil it, and how he wants each listener to have their own interpretation, so all I can do is offer my take. One of the album’s highlights is “Home On The Range,” with the opening line “I believe in littering/waste should not be hidden but seen.” This is one of my favorite lyrics of all time. It’s many things at once, an obvious provocation to ‘90s anti-littering campaigns, a hilarious joke, and a multi-layered declaration of truth. As I’ve listened to “Home On The Range” through the years I think of this line often; in a literal sense, are we really throwing our trash away if it ends up in landfills and enormous plastic islands in the ocean? And in a deeper sense, what do we gain from pretending that the people at the fringes of our society don’t exist? Ultimately, the songs of Big Wheel communicate that American freedom is a lie, and has come at the cost of immense hurt to our planet and countless displaced people across the world. Amongst the wreckage of this, however, you can search for a place of peace and truth for yourself in the detritus. On this record, Cass seems to be figuring it out: “I’m going to make my home out on the range… my whole life for a song.”

I may be guilty of reading too much into records I love, of assigning importance onto an artform that doesn’t need to be intellectualized. A criticism of lyric-heavy music that I have heard countless times over the years is, “I don’t understand why you wouldn’t just write a book.” However, I think the strength of the popular song is the distillation of complex ideas into short digestible bites. Over time, with deep listening, the messages of songs become visible to the listener. After a decade of listening, I think Big Wheel and Others is one of the most compelling works dealing with the American promise of freedom and its fallout, and the ways one can make a life for themselves in the wreckage.

Dominic Angelella is a songwriter and musician born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. He currently plays bass for Lucy Dacus, has toured with Natalie Prass and MewithoutYou, and has played on records by Kendrick Lamar, Juicy J, Mac Miller, Hop Along, and more. In addition to his resumé as a touring and recording musician he releases records under his own name, most recently Poison River, out now on Lame-O Records.

(Photo Credit: Josh Pelta-Heller)