Back In The Swim: Trout Fishing in America finds a ‘Safe House’

Back In The Swim: Trout Fishing in America finds a ‘Safe House’
BECCA MARTIN-BROWN
bmartin@nwadg.com

“Safe House” — the song, the CD, the concept — is a love story. It involves two musicians, two intertwined families that have expanded over the decades to include three grandchildren, 45 years of collaboration, thousands of fans — and a forced separation that proved that Keith Grimwood and Ezra Idlet are nowhere near the end of the road.

“We have not arrived,” Grimwood paraphrases, referring to another song on the 13-track CD being released April 22. It’s the 25th album for the Trout Fishing in America duo, but it’s the first they have released since the pandemic changed not only their lives but the way music is made and delivered. They freely admit they have no idea what they’re doing, but they know “what it’s like to ache to make music.” They know what it’s like to focus on their craft without the rigors of the road. And they know that playing for a “cold camera lens” doesn’t fill their hearts like eye contact and hugs and fan photos and everything else that makes a Trout show a family experience.

Grimwood, a classically trained bass player, and Idlet, a basketball player who left college with little but a guitar to pursue his true passion, met in Houston in 1976. Idlet played in a band called St. Elmo’s Fire; Grimwood was a fan. Then a symphony union lockout left Grimwood in need of a job, he joined the band, and the rest is oft-reported history. When St. Elmo’s Fire dissolved in 1979, the two founded Trout Fishing in America, playing everywhere from music festivals to street corners.

Since the beginning, Idlet and Grimwood have written songs about “what we know.” When they were each newly married and raising babies, lyrics were about dinosaurs and daycare blues, lullabies and car keys lost in a toddler’s diaper. Four decades later, they had morphed into the middle-aged challenges of Sudoku, silliness in the grocery store, smiles across a dance floor and car keys lost because they’re in the ignition of the car. Their work has earned them four Grammy nominations; they’ve played in all 50 states, for crowds as big as 44,000; and they’ve put half-a-million miles on at least two vehicles.

And then, in March 2020, the music stopped — literally.

“We were in Pennsylvania, in the epicenter of the infection, when we heard about covid,” Grimwood remembers. “We had a packed house at the show…”

“And we thought, ‘Well, we won’t shake hands or hug anybody,’ but we couldn’t say no,” Idlet picks up the story.

“Then we drove home, and that was the end of the tour for the rest of the year,” Grimwood continues. “And I immediately got sick, but I couldn’t get tested. So we went into serious lockdown mode.”

“For one month, we didn’t even see each other,” Idlet goes on. “That was the longest separation in 40-plus years.”

“It wasn’t like a divorce, it was worse,” says Grimwood. “It was deeper than just the two of us; it was life itself, the essence of being. It was … jarring.”

It didn’t take long — 37 days, to be exact — before the two families — Grimwood and wife Beth, Idlet and wife Karen and their wrangler and “Girl Friday,” Susan Billimek — decided they’d be a pandemic “pod” so they could play music together.

“At the end of one month, we decided we could not live without being together, honestly,” says Grimwood.

But the road had fallen out from under them for the first time in their lives.

“I got to watch the trees change, listen to birds, watch spring happen and fade and watch summer and fall and winter,” Grimwood says. “Do you know how many oil changes we get on our van every year? I got one oil change in 2020! The world just stopped turning.

“Ezra and I had a chance to sit down, breathe and take a break from this whirlwind, madcap career,” he goes on. “And we asked ourselves, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ We decided to write songs and play music. What do you write about? What you know! So the subject matter changed. We had a chance to dig really deep.”

“There was a lot of digging,” Idlet agrees. “Not only writing from our experiences and finding songs, but also digging into our instruments and learning more deeply the things that we play. On the album, we’re playing styles we grew up with but have not necessarily played all the time. Keith was playing fiddle. I was working on guitar and banjo. And as we worked on our instruments, songs came out, inevitably.”

Then came the question of how to share those songs. The answer came in livestreams — which they both agree are far scarier than playing to a live audience — and a series of “Tackle Boxes” — three songs and a little video released to buyers online. They bought a camera and turned one room of Idlet’s recording studio into a television set, and “it kept us in touch with the people who wanted to stay in touch with us,” says Grimwood. They also played virtual shows at some of their regular venues and some new ones — and they wrote music. Lots of music.

Their disparate heights are a running joke for Trout Fishing in America musicians Keith Grimwood (left) and Ezra Idlet. The difference, in case you’re wondering, is 15 inches. (Courtesy Photo)

“The model we’ve existed with forever and ever was make an album, tour, write songs, make an album, tour,” says Idlet. “There are way more songs we’ve recorded that didn’t make this album. But this was a complete thing, so we’re releasing it.”

There will be some touring following the album release April 22 — stops in Baton Rouge, Monroe, Austin and Houston, then back home for an outdoor show May 4 at the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks. They’ve got some old familiar gigs like the Kerrville (Texas) Folk Festival scheduled and some new ones like the Moccasin Creek Festival in Effingham, Ill.

But they also know some of the things changed by the pandemic won’t change back. That’s why “Safe House” is also a music video, which they’re sending out via YouTube to “see where it goes.”

If you haven’t been a fan for decades, what you’ll see in the video seems like a well-crafted home movie with music — images of Beth and Keith reading to their grandchildren; Ezra singing to Bertie Sue, the daughter of his musician daughter Dana and her musician husband; scenes from rural Arkansas — they all live out toward West Fork; and two old friends beaming at each other in the studio.

If you have been a fan — and raised your children and maybe your grandchildren to Trout’s music — you can read between the lines of the love story and know it’s not over yet.


FYI

‘Safe House’

Preorder Trout Fishing in America’s new album, “Safe House,” for $15 at troutmusic.com. CDs will ship April 22.


FYI

‘Safe House’

Lyrics

This is a safe house if the walls don’t fall

The roof won’t leak ‘cause it never rains at all

The ceiling’s high but the rooms are small

It’ll be alright. When it stops hurting, it’ll be alright

It’ll be alright. When it stops hurting, it’ll be alright

Yeah, the ceiling’s high but the rooms are small

This is a safe house if the walls don’t fall

I’m disappointed but I’m not surprised

You make the rules to take the prize

It’s just so hard to keep it all inside

It’ll be alright. When it stops hurting, it’ll be alright

It’ll be alright. When it stops hurting, it’ll be alright

Yeah, the ceiling’s high but the rooms are small

This is a safe house if the walls don’t fall

It’ll be alright. When it stops hurting, it’ll be alright

It’ll be alright. When it stops hurting, it’ll be alright

It’ll be alright. When it stops hurting, it’ll be alright

It’ll be alright. When it stops hurting, it’ll be alright

Yeah, the ceiling’s high but the rooms are small

This is a safe house if the walls don’t fall

This is a safe house if the walls don’t fall

— Trout Fishing in America

Categories: Cover Story