Riddy Arman wrote a song about a horse once, a long time ago, but no one has ever heard of it and she doubts anyone will.
And although there are few mentions of horses on her self-titled debut album, she imagines herself riding one every time she sings “Old Maid’s Draw”, her lonely ode to working as a ranch hand in the steep hills. from Montana.
That’s what she’s doing these days, having grown up in rural Ohio and making detours to New York and New Orleans in her twenties. When not herding cattle, she also writes poignant originals like âSpirits, Angels, or Lies,â a song about Johnny Cash’s ghost visitation to her father’s deathbed.
After his haunting performance of the song for a Western AF session went viral on YouTube, Arman entered the studio to record his album for La Honda Records, hit the road opening act for his label mate Colter Wall, and is now out on her own headlining tour.
With his husky Elsie and labrador retriever Strix (named after a genus of owls) listening in the background, Arman recently told us about his search for obscure country singer Carlene Jones, the comparative virtues of horses versus four-wheelers, and the mystery of crossing over to the other side.
India: Over the past year or so you’ve been compared to Glen Campbell, Neko Case, Dolly Parton, and Johnny Cash. Probably other people too. Which of these resonates most with you?
Riddy Arman: Oh my God, that pissed me off so much. I saw the review comparing me to Glen Campbell. And I don’t know exactly what they’re referring to about Glen Campbell. Maybe the lyrics? But I don’t really know.
I don’t think Glen Campbell wrote a lot of his own songs. They should have compared you to its songwriter Jimmy Webb.
Oh yes, of course I would take it! Well you know Dolly Parton went through a phase early in her career where she only wrote sad songs. I think on the first album she did for a label it was all sad songs that she wrote. So I guess I bonded more with that one, because it’s the start of my music career and these are all sad songs so far. But I really couldn’t tell you, because I don’t know who I could be compared to. It’s hard to see when you’re in the comparison.
You were playing with your own band on the first stop on this tour. Will you take them to Colorado as well?
No, I was supposed to, but COVID just changed a lot of things. But that’s okay, because it’s actually really fun and super exhilarating to play alone. So it’s good that I can do all these solo tours before, you know, I have to have my band with me all the time. It sounds like a blast, but I think it will be special to play alone in front of an audience and fans, as I enjoy having the space up there on my own to talk more about my writing and have more moments with the public.
When you say you have to have your group with you all the time, why would that be?
Well, I feel like you’re expected to have a band for certain shows, because having a band connotes more upbeat tunes. And so I think the bookers for some festivals and so on would want that. And just the atmosphere. Once you play in bigger venues, you kind of need a band to hold the sound for you. At least that’s how I was made to understand.
You have a band called The Local Honeys opening shows for you on this tour. What can you tell me about them?
The Local Honeys are a band from Kentucky, and they’re also on La Honda Records. They opened for Tyler Childers when he was still riding, and they opened for Colter in Europe. They play bluegrass, old-fashioned sad horse music.
Would you say those last words also describe what you do?
Well yeah. [Laughs.] I reckon that this is part of what I do. It’s such a sensitive time in everyone’s life that playing those sad songs really stings the walls that people put up. In my shows, I take a peek and see people crying or having a little pain. So I try to make my shows half a stand-up comedy, half a sad horse-girl music. Um, and I think the two go pretty well together.
There is nothing wrong with having a little catharsis once in a while.
Yes I agree. Even though I feel bad when I can tell it’s someone who doesn’t to want have that catharsis right now, you know? I feel a little sensitive to that. But I shouldn’t take that, I guess. That’s what a therapist would probably tell me.
You included a cover of “Help Me Make It Through the Night” by Kris Kristofferson on your album. What covers are you going to do live?
I don’t do a lot of covers, but the ones I tend to do are country songwriters that haven’t really gone that far. One is called “None for the Shepherd” by Carlene Jones. I found this song in a YouTube hole while looking for videos of Blaze Foley, who harmonized with her on this recording. I recently found her, but was unable to contact her. She lives in Austin, Texas, and some of my friends in their sixties know her from the folk music scene, but I’m not sure if she still plays music. I couldn’t find any of his songs other than that.
There is also âHorse I Want to Rideâ by Roger Alan Wade. A lot of Roger Alan Wade songs are kind of like funny country music, but he also has these really heartbreaking country songs. And then “Horse I Want to Ride” is just a very nice song about horses.
Do you own a horse?
I don’t know at this time, unfortunately. I have a pretty hard time finding people to watch over the dogs when I travel, so horseback riding is just something I can’t do at the moment. But there is one for me at work that I use.
So you use them to round up cattle?
Yes, they are much more efficient at moving cows. Well, people use four wheelers, but horses are just a smoother way to move cows. It’s just calm, it’s very calm and the cows react very well to the horses. But it takes a lot longer, which is unfortunately why people don’t use them as much anymore. But where I live there is a lot of rocky and steep country where you can’t bring a four wheeler. So the only way to get the cows is to bring a horse there.
How does life in Montana compare to when you grew up in Ohio?
Well I grew up on a river in Ohio with a lot of forest and private land around so it was very open and free for a kid and we went pretty much where we wanted. It’s similar here, but with a beautiful mountain range. To be among something so much greater than you is truly a lesson in humility, and I love how I feel every day just looking at them. It definitely keeps my head straight, I think. It’s much wilder here too. Where I grew up, if you saw a bald eagle it was just the rarest cool thing. But here the bald eagles are pretty much like pigeons. You know, they’re just everywhere, and a lot of bears and moose. There’s just a lot more diversity in the animals, so it’s really great to be there.
I wanted to ask a question about the song âSpirits, Angels, or Liesâ and its reference to Johnny Cash. How did it happen?
This song is a true story. My father was in a hospice facility, where he had been in a coma for a few weeks. He had just come out of it and my mom was there to visit him, and he told my mom very simply that Johnny Cash had visited him that night. There were train tracks right behind the room he was in – so there was constant train traffic – and he told her that Johnny Cash had stopped the train and wanted him to go with him. And he told Johnny he was going to stay.
Either way, my mom kind of brushed it off, because, you know, when people are in their later stages of life, they’re not really there. So she just thought it was something he had hallucinated or made up; she did not know. But they did a crossword, she said, and hung around a bit longer, then she put the news on. And one of the news was about the death of Johnny Cash. He had died that night at 3 or 4 in the morning, just as my father claimed it had happened.
The thing is, my dad wasn’t a Johnny Cash fan. I’m sure he liked music and wouldn’t have put it out, but he was more of the folk-rock genre. So it would be different if he said, “Neil Young came to visit me.” We’d be like, âYou wish. And that just pissed off my mom. The words are therefore “Spirits, angels or lies / We will never know what someone sees with their own eyes”. It’s just meant to be a heartwarming song about death, because we never really know what it’s like to go through. And, needless to say my mom is obsessed with Johnny Cash now.