April 22, 2011

A Closer Look: Bill Callahan's "Drover"

In a recent article for the New Yorker, music writer Sasha Frere-Jones asked Bill Callahan—the cult singer/songwriter of Smog fame—if he'd ever "killed it" with a song. It's a silly question, but Callahan candidly responded, "I think I killed it on 'Drover.'" For anyone who's spent time with his latest masterwork, Apocalypse, and its opening track, the songwriter's admission simply confirms what we as listeners already know: "Drover" is a career-defining moment—a gritty and nuanced epic that leaves everything on the table.

The nearly 6-minute long track places the album on a bleak course with a lone frontiersman set against the task of controlling a herd of cattle. The drover here is left with nothing but his own thoughts and "dreams," the cold barren landscape, and the beasts he's burdened with protecting: "Don't touch them / Don't try to hurt them." The scenery here is colored with sparse brushstrokes: first with Callahan's own acoustic guitar, and then a tense build of clacking drums sticks, pounding bass drum, and jarring distorted bursts of guitar. The whole scene plays out as if on the edge of a knife, nervously shifting balance between major and minor keys and harmony and dissonance.

“One thing about this wild wild country,” Callahan sings, “It takes a strong strong, it breaks a strong strong mind." The lyric paints a powerful and vivid portrait of a rugged cowboy battling the wild elements, but the narrator then suddenly shifts focus to the cattle, somewhat empathetically: "But the pain and frustration is not mine / It belongs to the cattle." Events then take a turn for the worse in the song's second half as the cattle turn against the drover, knocking him out cold on his back. However, Callahan's narrator seems to relish this trial, as he rises back up to his feet to take control: "When my cattle turns on me / I am a drover, double fold." Anything less than the thrill of reaching his own breaking point, the narrator repeats, "Make me feel like I'm wasting my time."

Callahan recently spoke with the Guardian UK about the record's open Western feel and how its stark setting serves to magnify the characters' personalities. He even went on to divulge part of the meaning of the cattle in "Drover:" "The cattle in that song are things inside you, so I suppose it's about corralling the emotions."

While it's impossible to uncover the exact meaning of "Drover," what's so fascinating about the song is how Callahan skillfully builds this dynamic and three-dimensional vignette with layer after layer of subtle detail from shifting angles, points of view, and the varying meanings of repeated phrases. Callahan takes a simple concept and unravels it as a complex puzzle of ideas. The song, with its battle of man versus beast and man versus self, sets the clock ticking for the imminent apocalypse and puts this album well on its way to greatness. To proclaim "Drover" as on of the best all-time opening tracks would be rash and overeager, but that it even merits discussion—and it does—is due to Callahan's years of experience and mastery of his trade.

Apocalypse ends on the decidedly more cheerful "One Fine Morning," which also serves as a book-end to "Drover." With a playful piano riffing in the background, Callahan's narrator rides out with the freshly collapsed world around him, the "curtain rose and burned in the morning sun," and as he lays down with his baby beside him, he proclaims: "Hey! No more drovering."

Buy the album directly from Drag City.

Bill Callahan - "Drover" (from Apocalypse)

Bill Callahan


  1. Didn't love the entire album, but "Drover" is an amazing song, srsly!

  2. Album is hypnotizing. One that can be repeated over and over, you get lost in it, feeling reflective, nostalgic, and ready to relax. Bill Callahan knows what he's doing.