On the road
Chico folk singer/songwriter Troi Atkinson brings history of hard travels to his music
Hank Williams Sr. said, “You got to live it, to sing it.” With a backwoods voice and a collection of original folk-rock songs, Troi Atkinson has lived it, and is singing it. Good folk rock music has a solid conflict, one that must be lived. Not many artists have as much gut-wrenching, lived-in material. Atkinson served in Central America in the early ‘80s, and the local singer/ songwriter’s songs reflect dark remembrance of fighting a war and yearning to get to the bottom of how to go on after.
His “Lo siento Honduras” is a reminder and shout out to a place he meant no harm as a soldier.
Reflecting back, he says, “I was at Memphis State studying biology and I needed some money. I ended up becoming a Navy SEAL, on the hopes I would make their special diving team. I learned soon that there were only six guys that made it, and they were kids from the academies. Being in the Navy with my guys was a piece of cake. It was just the other officers that were the problem.” Atkinson, now 42, with a flowing beard and skull cap, bears no resemblance to his clean-cut officer days.
I think people who know his history must be scared of Atkinson, staring into eyes that have seen the people, places and things most try to ignore. He centers his eyes on me and squints into focus, letting me know he’s paying attention. Atkinson pauses and speaks slowly, “I have always kept moving. After the military, well, after I got out of prison in Costa Rica, I started sailing and working. In the early ‘90s I moved to Seattle and played a bit of music in the grunge scene, but a lot of people were like, ‘Come on, you’re older, and fought in a war,’ implying I was in the wrong place. I hanged lights in Southern California, did non-union jobs. Made a bunch of money. Did some commercial fishing in Alaska and Washington. Hell, I worked at an animal rendering plant in Minnesota to get by—you don’t want to know what goes on there.” Atkinson is a living reminder of how hard it is sometimes to look life right in the eyes.
His most memorable quote from our conversation was, “We need God in these times, not a religious or governmental god, just God.” Atkinson doesn’t hide from his love or mistrust of America. He exudes a simple directness. Can you remember the vivid American colors on Peter Fonda’s motorcycle tank in the movie Easy Rider? Those are the images I relate to Atkinson. He is a willful and free-roaming American.
Atkinson’s music plays like one side of a fork in the road. Music more than ever is dependent on advanced technology. Many artists spend a great deal of time fitting into the new digital scheme of effects. There’s less and less individualized traditional instrument work; it’s more streamlined now. It is no longer just what do you have to say, and can you play? Sure, it’s still music—the same way America is still America—but Atkinson is definitely on the grassroots side of the fork, a little by choice and a lot by hard traveling. He lets everyone into his rambled world. You don’t even need a ticket most of the time: He plays three to four times a month, usually at places like Has Beans or Moxie’s, and also frequents Tazul’s Chico Butta radio show on local community radio station KZFR.
Atkinson is either leading his band Good Intentions or playing solo, with a pickless strumming sound that echoes Honduras, and a deep southern howl that echoes his home state of Arkansas. Slapping and knocking his guitar, Atkinson’s warm voice projects where he has been and where he is going. Original songs like “Willow Tree” reveal a storied past he has lived to tell about, and give an impression that he is more focused on Mother Earth nowadays.