My Country No More screens at the Wilma Fri., Feb. 23 at 6 PM and again at the Roxy Sun., Feb. 25, at 12:30 PM. $7/$9. Rider plays her big oil songs (totally uncensored) at the Top Hat Fri., Feb. 23 at 8 PM. Free.
Kalie Rider writes a lot of songs about her hometown of Trenton, North Dakota, but it can be difficult to perform them there. When she does, she’ll often change or omit certain lyrics. More often, she’ll just play covers: upbeat, crowd-pleasing bluegrass and country tunes, alongside her cousin, Michael Bearce. The duo, which they call Gettin’ Outta Dodge, brings their music to venues around the farm and ranch land where they grew up.
“We call our style Boom Grass,” Rider says with a bright laugh.
There are two big reasons that she either censors her own songs or chooses covers. For one, her songs — which have a folkier, lyric-heavy, singer-songwriter bent — aren’t quite as danceable as the covers. But for another, many of them chronicle her fight against Big Oil over the last seven years, as the Bakken Oil Boom came to her tiny corner of the world and turned it upside down. Playing her “dark oil” songs in her community means playing for neighbors who have sold their land to oil companies, friends who are fighting at her side to preserve their land, and a large number of men who have benefited greatly from area oil jobs.
One song, for example, “Giddy on Up White Truck,” is about the sudden proliferation of white pickups in town after the boom — the visual representation of the men who were suddenly well-employed by the boom and profiting from its riches. It’s also about Rider’s conflicting feelings about what the truck symbolizes: traffic, noise, danger, and a different way of life to her homeland at the same time it brought work and prosperity to some.
“The song is about their life juxtaposed against my life,” she says. “And that’s why when we play community events, I’ll censor my songs. It’s hard. You don’t want to disrespect people who haven’t had jobs in a long time, and now they do. I like to keep things neutral, although sometimes I guess I tip the scale.”
Tipping the scale might be an understatement. The environmentalist and songwriter has recently been the subject of a documentary, My Country No More, which will screen during the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. She will also be playing her oil boom songs, without any self-censoring, at the Top Hat Friday night.
Rider is sincere about her reluctant, accidental stumble into activism, although looking back, you can see that she was well-prepared to take a leadership role in the fight. The daughter of a farmer, her family lost their land during the mid-80s farm crisis, when production skyrocketed, land prices dropped, and interest rates increased, leading to a record number of foreclosures. Her family continued to rent and work the fields in the area, though even then the community as a whole took a staggering blow. Her family expected the smart and talented Rider to go farther afield, and she did, first to get her degree in dietetics in the Midwest and then to Missoula to earn another degree in environmental studies. When a knee injury, surgery, and complicating infection left her weak and ill, she moved home to recover, mere months before fracking technology made her community the epicenter of an unprecedented oil boom (and population boom, and crime boom, and rent boom, and industrial boom…)
“Home was supposed to be recovery for me, and the last thing I want to do is fight big oil,” she says. “It was extremely hard to heal and I didn’t want to fight. I wasn’t sent home to be an environmental missionary to fix America. I came home to heal, and big oil just came in like a freight train.”
In the path of the freight train was a tiny white church–a church that looks like what an 10-year-old might draw if you asked them to draw a church. It’s a church that Rider plays music at every Sunday and the church that she’s gone to her whole life. It’s also the church that’s literally on the border of where Big Oil wanted to build a new refinery to process the black gold coming out of the land.
When the church was first threatened (along with Rider’s more general way of life), she contacted her old pastor, Roy Hammerling, who happened to have a son, Jeremiah Hammerling, who is a filmmaker. Within weeks, Hammerling was in Trenton with his cameras rolling. The result, My Country No More, which plays at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival this weekend, focuses on Rider’s family, the oil boom, and Rider’s fight to stop the refinery from being built.
“When all of this started, I felt like I was in a documentary,” she says. “And then we were. I thought the documentary would be about all the violence, and the crazy stuff, but they turned the cameras on us. And I wasn’t planning on that.”
With her music, the documentary, and, especially, her fight to preserve her way of life, Rider is modest and almost timid — but when you see her playing her songs, or delivering a speech in front of local government (as well as her community and the oil men in it), her strength couldn’t be more clear or powerful. She only started playing guitar and singing a few years ago (during what she calls her quarter-life crisis) and she says she wouldn’t have joined the fight — except that she had to. She’s even reluctant to call her songs protest songs.
“I wouldn’t say that they were protest songs,” she says. “I never wrote them with any intention to put them out there. They were just a means to get things out of my head. I used to journal, but then music was the only way to cope. When I think of a protest song, I think of something that was written to be out there. Some people might hear them that way, but I wrote them for myself.”
Today, Rider lives on her brother’s ranch, where they are working on producing grass-fed beef, engaging in rotational grazing, and protecting the land their family has always loved. Rider has a new job at a nearby pediatric clinic, where she’s also following her passions of nutrition and the environment. She’s also a mentor with the North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition, all while keeping an eye on the oil situation nearby — which is no longer booming due to low oil prices.
“I left home not ever planning to come back,” she says. “But once I left and realized what an amazing thing it is to have land, I wanted to move home and be a part of it. I appreciate it, and it’s exactly where I want to be.”