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Big-voiced Nathaniel Rateliff writes songs based on love and memory

Michael Corcoran
Nathaniel Rateliff went to work as a young teen to support his family, but he never lost his connection to the music he's been playing since he was 7. His album, 'In Memory of Loss,' came out in May.

Life can change in an instant, even when you live in a farmhouse 10 miles outside a Missouri town with a double-digit population. A 13-year-old Nathaniel Rateliff was supposed to meet his father, a carpenter and musician, at church one day, but en route, Cecil "Red" Rateliff was broadsided by a barreling pickup and didn't make it.

A month after the funeral, Nathaniel Rateliff, a drummer since age 7, learned how to play guitar on his mother's 12-string. He also dropped out of school and worked in a factory to help support his family.

Eighteen years later comes "In Memory of Loss," an album that has critics hailing Rateliff, with a voice pure and melodies tender, as Leonard Cohen's son or as mix of Nicks, Cave and Drake.

The album's opening track, "Once In a Great While," sounds a little like Cohen's "Hallelujah," the first song Rateliff learned on the piano.

The lilting songs, written two years ago to impress the woman who's now Rateliff's wife, are not precisely about his father but seem built on pieces of love that never leave. A key word is "and," that bridge between looking back and moving on, with such standouts as "Longing and Losing," "Oil and Lavender," "Wimper and Wail" exploring the flip sides of emotions.

Released by Rounder, the home of rootsy singer-songwriters opening its gate a little wider, the record was produced in Chicago by Brian Deck, which has led to misguided comparisons to Deck's main client, Iron & Wine. Sam Beam of I&W is a poet who sings; Rateliff is a big-voiced singer who writes songs.

"To me, it was, like, a fluke that I could write songs," says the guy whose earliest musical direction came from a cassette of "Led Zeppelin IV" he found in an old barn. "My goal was to be a hotshot guitarist." Dancing on the effects pedals, his Denver-based rock band Born In the Flood made a lot of well-praised noise with 2007's "If This Thing Should Spill."

But Rateliff also was discovering a more personal side to his music and recorded his first solo album "Desire and Dissolving Men" while still a member of Born in the Flood. His solo act was originally called the Wheel, but there was another band called the Wheel and then came the "Willie and the Wheel" album by Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel. Rateliff now has a five-piece band, but bills it as his name.

"I still perform solo sometimes and I like that," he says. "But I like a band better when you're trying to get the attention of people who might not know who you are."

He loves nothing better, he says, than playing to a crowd of intense listeners. "It seems like there's a new respect for singer-songwriters," he says. "I think it's come back to the '60s in a way, when nobody cared about the music industry. It's come back to the songs and what they mean." Rateliff's introspective, yet accessible music is often lumped in with the likes of Bill Callahan, Bon Iver and Blitzen Trapper.

When he's not on the road, Rateliff works as a gardener back in Denver. He loves to watch things grow. Plus it pays well and, as of last year, when he got married and became the stepfather of a 13-year-old kid, he's got a new family to support. How fast things can change.

mcorcoran@statesman.com; 445-3652

Nathaniel Rateliff with Sahara Smith and the Beaten Sea

When: Doors at 9 tonight

Where: Emo's, 603 Red River St.

Cost: $10

Information:www.emosaustin.com