“Keep calm,” read the letters tattooed on Vermont singer-songwriter Kelly Ravin’s knuckles. In a sense, that’s the advice delivered on his new song “Pretend.” It’s advice aimed at a specific audience: soldiers overseas. And it’s not always easy to follow.
that the armor you’re wearing
is the dive suit you put on
when your pops took you fishing
that the helmet you got on
is the one your mom made you wear
before you went out biking
That’s how the song begins, and it continues like that, from boots to humvees to AKs. As the chorus summarizes: “You’re gonna get to the end / Through your rockets and your friends / Sometimes you got to pretend.” As the verses moves along, the metaphors move past symbols of the actual battlefield. The last object: a VA hospital bed. It leads into the arresting closer, Ravin switching into first-person for the first time.
I like to pretend
that the country you were fighting for
gave a damn about you
before you wheeled yourself out the door
“My mother’s side of the family is the Pattons: Southern raised, military based,” Ravin writes in an email. “Lots of generations of army, marines, Air Force. The song was based off my best friend in high school, however. We all thought he’d be a firefighter, then 18 hit and he joined the marines. Six tours later, we got to hang out and chat. That’s where the song came from.”
He cites John Prine “Sam Stone” and the songs of James McMurtry as inspirations in the field of soldier songs. “Pretend” is not the first time Ravin has explored such subjects, either; an earlier track called “Vietnam Love Song” digs into history to explore parallels with the Iraq war (“Iraq and Vietnam are totally different but exactly the same: Unwinable, undesirable, and lots of loved ones left behind”). Both songs share the same simple elegance of much of his work, with not a single word wasted. (Worth mentioning: I took the title of this blog from Ravin’s stunning 2015 album of the same name, which you can download at his website.)
“Pretend” was originally a hidden track on Ravin’s 2017 album Engine. Why hidden? “I don’t like records with more than 10 songs on them.” It gets its own spotlight in a new music video filmed at Shelburne Farms in his native Vermont. In a beautifully-shot solo performance, the tractors and beer can provides a suitably modest setting for his quietly moving story.