The first words heard on Langhorne Slim’s new album Strawberry Mansion might lead a listener to believe they’re in for a bummer of Biblical proportions.
“Someday the world might come and blow your house down,” the Nashville-by-way-of-Bucks-County musician sings on “Mighty Soul.” “First a tornado, then a plague.”
Slim, who takes his name from the town where he grew up and whose given name is Sean Scolnick, isn’t just being metaphorical.
The plague is COVID-19, and the tornado was tragically real, too. Just a week before the pandemic shut down live music everywhere, a twister that killed 25 people in Tennessee ripped through his East Nashville neighborhood. It decimated the next street over, but left his home unscathed.
“Mighty Soul” isn’t a sad song, though. It’s a catchy, banjo-forward gem. And Strawberry Mansion — whose title comes from the Philadelphia neighborhood where his late grandfathers grew up, in a Jewish community his lyrics locate “down the street from the house of Coltrane” — is no downer, either.
It’s a bountiful, country-and blues-infused folk album that marks an artistic flowering for Slim as he confronts fear and anxiety with melodic grace, earning an honest measure of uplift and optimism.
Strawberry Mansion’s lively 19 songs, all written in the early months of the pandemic, arrive at a pivotal juncture for the 40-year-old musician.
He’d been touring steadily for 15 years, then jumped off of what he calls “the hamster wheel on fire” of life on the road and checked into a treatment center for addiction to prescription medication just before the pandemic shutdowns began.
“It’s been cosmically good for me,” says Scolnick, talking about life during quarantine.
“When I talk about this, I never want to diminish the tragic situations that so many people are in,” he says, speaking from the home in Tennessee that he shares with his cat, Mr. Beautiful.
“But for me, in a deeply personal way, it was almost like I started training for some stillness, a much needed simplification of how I live my life. And then it was forced upon me, and everybody. Just to slow down, simplify and find some stillness. And it coincided with a time that I realized that was something I needed.”
This isn’t Scolnick’s first bout with addiction. In 2013, he quit drinking on his own, chronicling it on his 2015 album The Spirit Moves. “I haven’t had a drink in seven and a half years,” he says.
But over time, his struggles with anxiety grew. “It just became the loudest voice I was hearing,” he says. He became dependent on the antianxiety medication Xanax, and found himself unable to cope when his supply ran out.
The talking blues song “Panic Attack” on Strawberry Mansion chronicles one incident without flinching: “Sometimes my skin starts crawling, sometimes the creature’s calling, sometimes the walls start caving in.”
The singer resists the downward spiral, though, and offers folksy wisdom “to all my friends in the same position.”
“I wish there was a cure,” he sings. “But I know that life’s worth livin’ / It’s the only thing worth living for.”
The severity of his situation became clear when his friend Joel Sadler drove him from Los Angeles home to Nashville in December 2019. “I was just in bad shape,” Scolnick recalls. “I’ll never forget it. He looked at me like he didn’t know who I was.”
When they arrived, he drove Sadler to the airport, then stopped on the way home to text his manager that he needed treatment. He spent a week as an inpatient, then regularly attended what he calls “sober school” meetings. “Having a community that supports one another makes a big difference.”
A song a day as discipline
After the shutdowns began, another friend suggested Scolnick attempt a disciplined exercise: Write a song a day, and record it for posterity, as well as Instagram.
“I had been pent up and numb on all that medication,” Scolnick says. “And I think with getting off of all that, something broke open. Songs just started flying through the room at speeds I had not seen before.”
Soon, he had 30. Strawberry Mansion was coming into being. “Mighty Soul” was among the first. It sets the tone for album in that it’s a prayer-like plea “to endure this wretched toll” through a collective empathy: “Let us use our hands to help and hold / Let us utilize our Mighty Soul.”
Scolnick has always had a romantic conception of the past. As a teenager, he loved Nirvana and riot grrl punk bands, but also vintage folkies like Leadbelly. He had his mind blown by Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music when his high school sweetheart’s father turned him onto it.
Growing up, he loved to hear his grandfathers tell of their childhoods in Strawberry Mansion. “It was kind of like an urban Huck Finn or Oliver Twist way of life,” he says. “They would tell great stories. They were tough but also super sweet in the heart. They were my two main men. I still feel them around me a lot.”
The Strawberry Mansion title cut is an evocative, elegiac instrumental, rendered tenderly by Scolnick on guitar with his string band compatriots Paul DeFiglia and Mat Davidson. The three play all the music on the album.
That song is followed by “The Mansion,” which conjures up an image of his grandfathers and their wives in the old neighborhood: “Sid and Ruthie, Jack and May / All one as the big band’s playing, under the Philly sun.” The song imagines a magical place of peace and comfort: “And it’ll make you happy … there is a Strawberry Mansion for all.”
Scolnick’s Philly ties also show up on “Summer Days,” a lonely pandemic song that’s a sequel of sorts to “Ocean City” from his 2017 album Lost at Last, Vol. 1.
In that song, he recalled getting his picture taken with Mr. Peanut on the boardwalk. This time, he reminisces about another Shore town: “Sometime I miss New Jersey, and the rides in Wildwood / But the sun there always burned me.”
During the pandemic, Scolnick has regularly come home to see his mother, Robin, and grandmother, Ruthie, who live in the house where he grew up. In September, he was among the headliners at the Philly Music Fest at the Ardmore Music Hall.
For 2021, he’s excited about reconnecting with audiences again. He, Davidson, and DeFiglia will play Strawberry Mansion from his house in Nashville in a performance that will stream on YouTube on Valentine’s Day.
But he’s also wary about returning to the road. “I want us all to get back to safety and everybody to be able to do what they want to do,” he says. But he’s in no hurry to leave behind the cocoon that’s been so productive for his art and calming to his soul.
“There is a part of me that is not eager to get back and tour the way that I once did,” he says. ”I want to explore this idea of making the world smaller … I’m finding some truth and peace in that. I feel like I’m on the right road.”