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Bone Structure is not the album that Ron Pope set out to release. While parenthood has a way of softening hard exteriors and forcing more than a few lifestyle changes, Pope found himself almost unrecognizable after becoming a father in early 2018. Before he’d gathered his footing in this extraordinary new reality, a jarring incident on tour forced him to reckon with his own mortality and consider what it would mean for his newborn daughter if he were to die. Within a few months, he’d effectively shredded his notebook, tossing aside an album’s worth of recording sessions, no longer satisfied with generalizations and lyrics light on context. Fresh notebook in hand, a deluge of deeply personal reflections on his own life poured through his pen. A change of heart? “Navigating a sea change” is more apropos.
Pope found renewed purpose in writing songs to explain his perspective on the world to his daughter as if he were whispering his secrets to her from the other side. This is the crucible in which Bone Structure was forged. The first utterance on the album, “flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood, the only part of me I’ve ever loved” can seem like a shocking departure for fans that know Ron as a self-assured, confident narrator. Bone Structure finds Pope on a new path, examining everything he knew about life and more so, what he didn’t know.
Pope’s own parents were barely nineteen when he came along; he was “a child in the care of children.” As a boy, he felt saddled with responsibility and adult worries; his formative years were spent watching family members fall victim to drug addiction, mental illness, and death by misadventure. Resentful of the baggage that was heaped upon him, Pope began to rebel against anything resembling responsibility. Letting go of the idea of marriage and children early on in his journey allowed him to survive along the margins and exist in a construct of how he felt musicians were supposed to live. He turned to alcohol in his teen years, often stashing empty liquor bottles under his twin bed, next to baseball gloves and old copies of MAD Magazine. His ability to function normally at school created a glossy veneer, masking inner demons and buried trauma. With his emotions dulled but still buzzing, he began scratching out poems in an intuitive effort to uncover how he truly felt about the world and what his place was within it. He rumbled into his twenties fixated on oblivion, pinballing around America in search of words that always seemed just one more exit down the highway.
Poems eventually turned into songs, which led him to chase the muse from Georgia to New York City. It was there in Gotham that he stumbled upon the first inkling of a change of course - this is where he fell in love with his wife, Blair. While both rebelled against the idea of any sort of permanent partnership, they eventually gave into what felt blindingly obvious. Two years into their partnership, his nagging obsession with freedom caused Pope to blow up the life they had built together, putting him squarely back at the place he started - alone. The half-year that they spent apart was a dark time for him - not only mentally, but also creatively. While he had once again achieved a sort of freedom from responsibility, the framework of his life had corroded beneath his feet; he was back on a vision quest, forever in search of some kind of truth that he couldn’t define. “For a long time, I broke my own heart living like I didn’t need anyone. Somewhere inside, I knew that what I really wanted was to build a less volatile life for myself than the one I’d been born into. As cliché as it seems, all I wanted was to be happy; I just didn’t know how.” Eventually, he and Blair found their way back to each other and knew that this time, they were playing for keeps.
In a massive leap of faith, Blair left corporate America behind and became Pope’s manager. They gave up their laughably tiny New York apartment for a life on the road, fully supported by Pope’s music. Not being constrained by a label or publisher allowed them to grow a business together on their own terms. Brooklyn Basement Records was born from this partnership; the pair are devoted to shepherding both emerging and established artists through the shark infested waters of the music industry.
Five years into their adventure on the road, Blair became pregnant and the duo decided to settle in Nashville. Rather than causing those old feelings of unrest to creep back in, this new family life fostered a heightened sense of belonging in Pope and for once, he felt truly at home. The intense feeling of purpose provided by the birth of their daughter shined a light into the darkest crevices of his mind. The fact that this was the first time in his black and white life that things truly burned in Technicolor made Pope’s brush with extinction all the more striking.
It was with this gut punch of inclusion and with the echoes of abject terror still ringing in his ears that Pope began re-writing the record. While some songs speak directly to his daughter, others illuminate long buried recollections in an attempt to exhume the life lessons that were interred alongside the memories themselves. The album’s title track, Bone Structure, is a cinematic epic that drops the listener squarely into the springtime of Pope’s own New York City fever dream, as he recalls coming face to face with the reality that love and lust are not always one and the same. “Practice What I Preach” finds Pope on the precipice of his daughter’s birth recounting all of the ways he is not yet qualified to raise a child while also trying to parcel out any wisdom he may have to offer, along with a greasy side of Memphis horns. In the hauntingly sparse “Wait and See” Pope’s trembling voice asks himself, the listener or the universe at large “Was I chased all this way by my chemistry? What will become of me?” Even with songs that are deeply meaningful and introspective, Bone Structure’s overall impact is still optimistic and heartening. Using production elements that are at once directly tied to his Southern roots and somehow also push the boundaries of Americana have allowed Pope to create something that feels rooted in history while still absolutely vibrant and of-the-moment. Taken as a whole, Bone Structure is the stunning account of a life spent searching; it ebbs and flows, breathing deeply, weighted by narrative accounts of harrowing experiences while also reveling in the remembrances of an unselfconscious joy that one can only know when their past is considerably shorter than their future.
These recordings, while ultimately personal to Pope and his family, are universal in their themes. “Writing these songs reminded me of where I’ve been and how hard it was to claw my way out of that pit of my own creation,” he says. “I don’t miss who I used to be; that version of me was constantly on guard, willing to do absolutely anything to keep himself unburdened by the weight of other people's needs. Having to stare at those ancient reflections of myself through this process has not always been so easy, but I’ve tried to be as honest as I can stand to be. God forbid I’m not here when my daughter grows up, this is where she should start when she’s ready to know what I wanted to tell her about the world.”