If the sunset had a soundtrack, if the winds across the Midwestern landscape could sing, if nature could be captured in lyrical form, collectively they might sound something like Twin Cities-based indie roots band the Pines.
The rich farmland and small Iowan towns from which co-founders Benson Ramsey and David Huckfelt hail are embedded in the band’s music. They’ve filled four albums with evocative, reflective tunes, most recently on “Above the Prairie,” released last month on St. Paul-based Red House Records. On Friday, the Pines hit a milestone at First Avenue: It’s their first time headlining the mainroom.
The new 10-song album simultaneously urges listeners to be more present in the world and more tolerant of its transience. Huckfelt says the bygone vibrancy of local businesses, open plains and a slower pace of life were among the inspirations for the new album — but he’s quick to point out it’s not nostalgic.
“I don’t think we long for quieter days,” he said, “but we have a connection to that sense of family, sense of place, knowing where you are rooted on the Earth, and wanting to carry that with you wherever you go — because the world’s going to tell you to be in a hurry at all times.”
Given that the music business is changing just as quickly, impermanence is a theme throughout “Above the Prairie.” The studio where the band recorded the LP has since gone out of business, and American Indian activist John Trudell, who wrote and read the poem “Time Dreams” on the album’s last track, died last year.
“We’ve had this sense that a lot of the worn pathways in the music world and the bridges we’re standing on have crumbled behind us,” Huckfelt says. “I don’t think there’s any person, place or thing that you can trust your security to. It can be very unsettling, but you have to create and carry your peace with you like a candle in the wind.”
If you think the duo only writes about ephemeral, earthy topics, you’d be mistaken. There are personal narratives woven into the songs, though neither songwriter will blatantly untangle them.
“It all goes into the subconscious. It comes through,” says Ramsey. “I really like to not have my personal life involved in it.”
Huckfelt adds: “We have an antiquated idea that music and life are seamless. Each album, for us, is a gift for the people we love and care about. Those people are in our minds foremost when we’re writing songs. It might not be explicit, but it’s in there, in the sentiment and in the expression.”
A desire to define — or redefine — home is what drove both Ramsey, 35, and Huckfelt, 37, to leave Iowa more than a decade ago. They met by chance on a street in Tucson, Ariz., while soaking up the Southwestern music scene. They quickly bonded over a shared philosophy of music-making: Do it because you love it. Be careful not to ask too much. You are not entitled to your success. Take care of music and it will take care of you.
“We work with people we respect, play places that we admire,” Huckfelt says. “We’re not trying to pull one over on anybody. Even though it’s a rat race in the music business, that’s not our first impulse.”
The two friends brought this ethos with them when they moved to Minnesota, along with a vow to make “a conscious effort to embrace where we’re from,” says Ramsey, who lives in St. Paul. “What keeps us here and has been really nurturing is an eclectic community of artists. We’re really inspired by folk music and the people approaching art in an honest, serious way. It’s an exceptional environment for the music.”
Both musicians believe that their collaboration is a spiritual practice. “We treat the Pines as sacred space,” Huckfelt says.
“It is sort of religious,” Ramsey echoes. “I know that has many connotations, but it is a way for us to explore these complex feelings that you can’t really articulate. It’s something we all really feel, but the only way to really get at it is through art.”
Music is also a family legacy, passed down from Ramsey’s father, Bo, a singer, songwriter and guitarist in his own right as well as a co-producer of “Above the Prairie.” Ramsey’s brother, Alex, plays keyboard and provides additional vocals in the Pines. “We’ve all worked together on quite a few records. A lot can go unspoken,” Ramsey says.
Growing up, he always knew he would become a musician. “It was in my blood. It was such a powerful thing. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
While Ramsey and Huckfelt may initially start working on material separately, it isn’t until they are together that the message coalesces and a shared vision emerges.
“There’s this magic in collaboration where, if you handle the tension right, can produce something very vital and alive,” Huckfelt says. “I think we switch off roles and wear a lot of different hats in this group but when it comes to songwriting and creating the music, it grows out of a mutual respect and a deep friendship.”
Additional musicians, whom Huckfelt likens to “planets in the solar system of the Pines,” lend their talents on the album, though only the Ramsey brothers and Huckfelt will perform the songs during the band’s out-of-state dates.
Huckfelt says the band’s bump up to mainroom headliner at First Ave is an honor and a testament to the local music scene: “Sometimes, it’s important to take a step back and realize how lucky we are.”
As for the future, the band has no designs on superstardom.
“What we want to do is be ourselves,” Ramsey says. “I don’t know what small or big is anymore. We try to be present each night that we play and put together albums we feel good about putting out into the world.”
Erica Rivera is a Twin Cities-based writer.
With: Phil Cook, StoLyette.
When: 8 p.m. Fri.
Where: First Avenue, 701 1st Av. N., Mpls.
Tickets: $15, 18 & older.