Wielding his guitar like a weapon, Chris Pierce sings truth to power on his eighth album, American Silence. With gruff vocals, warbling harmonica, and sturdy, stripped-down playing on his Gibson J-50 and Martin D-18, the soulful Black artist harkens back to the acoustic guitarists and protest singers of the civil rights era. Though he never loses his identity, Pierce’s voice becomes multitudes on this collection, attempting to speak out for those unheard in 21st century America.
Pierce’s picking—rippling like water over rocks—is deceptively gentle throughout “Sound All the Bells,” even as the lyrics turn to Pierce’s childhood terror of watching a cross-burning in front of his home. His Martin swaggers with a locomotive chug on “Chain Gang Fourth of July.” Amid percussive swipes across the strings, Pierce becomes a prophet preaching from the pulpit, asserting that slavery still reigns in prisons across America, while white-collar criminals go free.
On “Residential School,” Pierce’s husky whisper assumes the persona of a 19th century Native American, shipped off to a white-run institution designed to bleach his culture and identity out of him. As chiming guitar sweeps like wind through the pines, Pierce imagines ancestors rising above the prairie, but the sound he hears is just a locomotive whistling through the night.
“How Can Anybody Be Okay with This” is a blunt condemnation of what he sees as America’s slow awakening to police brutality against Black bodies. As Pierce’s ringing strums grow more insistent, he subverts the National Anthem: “Oh say, can you see/What you don’t want to believe?” Pierce’s pulsing Gibson turns ominous on “It’s Been Burning for a While.” Here, an apocalyptic nightmare builds to a wave of righteous fury unleashed over the death of George Floyd and countless other Black men. Pierce’s powerful growl builds until the dam breaks with a hair-raising primal scream: “That ain’t no chip up on my shoulder/That’s your boot up on my neck.”
Soulful, wise, and empathetic, Pierce is not afraid to make some listeners uncomfortable with American Silence, but the album also has its gentler moments. Pierce shares the sorrow welling in his heart as the homeless huddle for warmth in “Bring the Old Man Home.” He marvels at the courage of civil rights hero John Lewis in “The Bridge of John,” and delivers a paean to Black self-love in “Young Black and Beautiful.”
The title track praises the healing balm of song with the couplet, “We see the music move you as you lay your burden down/We feel the music grip you as your heart is soaked in sound.” As Pierce’s vocal is joined by a swelling choir, he makes an impassioned plea to Americans to overcome crippling complacency to save the country we profess to love. Pierce spins narratives weighted with emotion born from struggle. His songs of freedom may recall the 1960s, but his concerns are up-to-the-minute and his eyes are on the future.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.