This tense political moment has already inspired plenty of topical songs — some broad enough to support a rather elastic message, others more bold-faced and barbed. But when Nashville singer-songwriters Nora Jane Struthers and Korby Lenker sat down in early February for their first-ever co-writing session, they found themselves less in the mood to agitate than to extend an invitation of sorts. Their delightful song "Let's Just Have Supper" playfully envisions what it could look like if people with polar-opposite perspectives were to gather around the table and share the elemental experience of passing the cornbread, chicken and beans, a down-home image if ever there was one.
Struthers and Lenker wasted no time assembling a string band from among their folky musical circles to record the tune with loping, loose-limbed warmth. Fittingly, the session took place at the home of their engineer friend, Marc Lacuesta. Lenker and Struthers' individual tour schedules took them to separate cities soon after that, so they reconvened via conference call to unpack the spirit of the song.
Going into this collaboration, did you give any thought to whether or not you were sitting down with someone who was coming from the same place you were politically?
Korby Lenker: You want to field this one, Nora Jane? I'm kind of curious what you're going to say.
Nora Jane Struthers: Yeah, I'm kind of curious what you're going to say.
I think what happened was Korby came over to my house and was talking about how he had been watching the news. I don't remember what it was, but something was making him tear his hair out. So I think the initial assumption was that I would agree with him. It just so happened that I did.
... I remember us specifically talking about our own family members, and how there's discord in political ideologies within our families, and how difficult that can be. Really, that was the seed of the song, that initial conversation and bringing it immediately to our own families and having something that resonated with both of us there, I think. Don't you, Korby?
KL: Yeah, I do. ... That was really the first verse of the song.
The first verse takes place in that intimate familial setting, the second one moves outside the home to a scenario involving a next-door neighbor and the third shifts to comment threads on social media. Why did you start at home and widen from there?
KL: The "comments on a post" line was sort of my take on what that exchange is on social media, which is not really a conversation. ... If there is any dissenting in their friend circle, there's a counterpoint and then another point and another point. Usually it spins off into something vitriolic, but even if it doesn't, that's not a conversation. That's not people exchanging ideas.
I wonder if that is due to the fact that there's fewer and fewer venues for people to just be together in the same room at the same time. That idea of sharing a meal together kind of came out of that for me, just an example of, "Wow, if you just sit at a table together, you kind of have to get along." And then you can kind of talk about stuff, and maybe hear somebody who doesn't think like you. Maybe that's the way forward here. I don't know.
NJS: Another piece of why this felt like a song that Korby and I needed to write together, to me, was we're both touring musicians and we travel around the country. A lot of times we will stay with hosts, either family or friends or fans in faraway cities. We'll find ourselves in the homes of really gracious, generous people who maybe have different points of view. Especially when you're in that kind of situation, the only thing to do is to sit down and have a meal together and listen to their perspective. You can give your own as well, but when you're being welcomed into someone's home, it just opens up hearts, I think, just to be in a domestic space together and to be sharing food together.
There's a regional inflection to the word you chose for that, "supper," as opposed to "dinner."
KL: We talked about that, didn't we, Nora Jane? I felt like that was really you zeroing in on the word supper and kind of wanting to make it a colloquial thing.
NJS: Yeah. Korby's from the Northwest, I'm from New Jersey, and we both live in Nashville, Tennessee. ... I love the South. And I hear my Northern friends just lumping all Southerners in together and depicting them all as stupid rednecks, and it pisses me off. That's not fair or accurate. These are intelligent people who have their own life experiences and beliefs that they're bringing with them.
For me, all I ever try to do is connect with people. Korby, we talked about that, didn't we? ... As performers, that's the main thing we do: try to connect with people and try to connect people to each other. I think that choosing that word was — I don't know. I don't want to say that I was trying to adopt a culture that was not mine. It was more trying to connect with a culture that I feel adopted by.
In the moment, were you driven more by your own desire to hear a song like this, or were you thinking from the outset about how it would resonate with other people?
KL: This song is really close to my heart in terms of what I want to do with music in general. As we started writing this, I started getting fired up about what we were saying and feeling like we need a song like this. I don't think this is a protest song, and I'm not saying anything disparaging against a protest song. We obviously need them. There's some stuff that's happening in the world that should not be happening, and artists do need to step up and speak out. But I also think there's a place for a voice of coming together and a song that starts to get at — dare I say — mutual respect from one side to the other. I think the liberal position, which I obviously am and I think Nora Jane is too, we can tend to look down upon people who think the other way. ... But coming together, I think, is important. My part in the song was an effort to get at that.
You say you don't see it as a protest song. What would you say is the difference between a political song and a song that's meant to speak to a political moment?
KL: A lot of times a political song, it adopts a perspective on the political spectrum. We are in a political moment obviously, but the song isn't a political song somehow. It's a community song.
NJS: I disagree. I think it is a political song. I would classify it as a political song because it is so clearly addressing this political moment that we're in. But I hear what you're saying. You can think of it either way. I don't think it's right or wrong. But I view it as a political song.
It's interesting that that two of you, as co-writers, have different views of what you've created together.
KL: Yeah, I think it's totally interesting. This is kind of as political as I would ever know how to get. ... I tend to try to see both perspectives on an issue, and a lot of times that makes me have a harder time speaking out really boldly one way or another, except in certain circumstances.
NJS: Funny enough, I feel the same way. Most of my life, I have not really been comfortable expressing my own political opinions. For one, I always feel like there's more research I need to do before I can really speak intelligently on many, many topics. But also because I don't want to alienate people or whatever. I feel like what so many artists have experienced since the election — and not just artists — so many people in our country have had the realization that, "OK, now I really need to get active and be motivated to defend my beliefs." On both sides I think people are doing that.
KL: Getting back to your point, Nora Jane, the heart of this song is about us as singer-songwriters who tour all the time. We both stay with people on a regular basis who maybe think differently than we do.
I'd think it's very hard to be dismissive of what people think when they're hosting you in their home and you're accepting their hospitality.
NJS: Absolutely. That is a key piece of it. For me, traveling around and being treated with so much grace and hospitality by so many different kinds of people, it makes it impossible to look at a map of America where everything is blue and red and see it only as blue and red. Because I know people in the blue places and the red places, and they're actual people. And I've talked to them and I've hung out with their dogs and I've played with their babies. They're good people. ... I wish I could share those experiences with people who look at those maps and only see blue and red. I think our hope is that this song is going to direct some energy toward humanizing each other.