To me, Colin Halliburton’s voice has always sounded like Kansas.
That’s a ridiculous thing to say about one singer, especially a white-dude Americana songwriter in a state with more cultural diversity than it gets credit for — where the world-class opera singer Joyce DiDonato trained at Wichita State University and Topeka has a legacy of all-female mariachi bands, for starters.
But Halliburton, the writer and vocalist at the center of Lawrence’s The Roseline, has a voice that’s gorgeous, heartfelt and humble, plaintively resigned to whatever life throws at him. Like Kansas.
Halliburton titled The Roseline’s sixth album “Good Grief,” and listening to it evokes this whole damn year.
“It’s a song cycle that was written over the course of a two-year period that was pretty tumultuous with highs and lows,” Halliburton says.
One low was the sudden death of his longtime close friend and Roseline co-founder and keyboardist Ehren Starks.
“He was massively talented and even a better friend,” Halliburton says. “He also suffered from mental illness and substance abuse most of his adult life. Eventually the hard living caught up in the form of a ‘widow maker’ heart attack.”
The rest of the album deals with everything from, he says, “getting married to my wife losing her mother to suicide and everything in between.”
And that was before the pandemic.
“I thought it was kind of funny in the Charlie Brown sense,” Halliburton says of the album name. “Like, what more could possibly go wrong at this point? But that was way before even considering what this year would become.”
There’s even a track about violent white supremacy.
How can I sleep, Halliburton sings, when lonely white males have a vision of blood in the street?
“Counting Sheep” was inspired by a visit to the Bergen-Belson Holocaust museum, on the site of the former concentration camp, when The Roseline was on tour in Germany.
“We got there barely before they closed at dusk and this layer of fog covered the whole grounds,” Halliburton remembers. “It was a very eerie and very affecting experience walking through there. Simultaneously, I was reading the news from back in the States and it was right around the time when these white nationalist groups were popping up in the news. It was such a bizarre parallel to me — like, how is this still going on that many years later?”
Politics has not been a topic in The Roseline’s music. But, Halliburton says, “I was just so compelled to do it that I didn’t really care about how it would be received.”
Another track feels to me like the Christmas song of 2020. It’s not about Christmas at all — it’s about a sick baby Halliburton just happens to call “Saint Nicholas.” But it is about helpless family members waiting for a loved one to improve in the hospital, begging for the best doctors, the best science has to offer, even help from the president.
“Good Grief” was set for release on April 3. Halliburton had a tour and shows lined up. All canceled.
He’s not much for live performances online, so there wasn’t really a way to promote it. He and guitarist Bradley McKellip did get together for a live, socially distanced set at the Replay Lounge in May.
“It is not fun to sing while wearing a mask,” Halliburton says. “There’s a lot of sucking of fabric and mask slippage. But I hope that video will be a bizarre document of live music during a global pandemic.”
Halliburton had a day job, so at least he wasn’t depending on income from shows and record sales. But in July, the lab at the University of Kansas where he worked as an assistant shut down because researchers couldn’t do their work in the pandemic.
Around that same time, Halliburton and his wife had their first child.
“It’s been a wild ride,” he says. “But I’m kind of leaning into the positives of just being able to spend every day with my kid for the first four or five months of her life, which has been amazing.”
Leaning into the positives is all any of us can do right now.
Halliburton’s not dwelling on the fact that his favorite record so far basically got “buried in the chaos that was COVID.” Instead, he’s written enough new music for two new albums and is headed back into the studio in December.
He knows other musicians haven’t been so fortunate.
“I feel the worst for the working class bands and songwriters out there that this is their full-time gig and they’ve lost all sources of income,” Halliburton says. “And for the venues. The whole industry is being decimated, and without any sort of bail-out in sight it’s looking so grim.”
It’s black Friday, everyone. Buy some merch from a Kansas artist.