Bad Religion's Greg Graffin on New Country Album, Punk Persistence

California punk hero and scholar explores country roots on new album 'Millport'

Bad Religion frontman Greg Graffin will release his solo album 'Millport' on March 10th. Credit: Paul R. Giunta/Getty Images

"Millport is my exploration of the paradox between getting older and remaining relevant," concludes Greg Graffin, frontman for legendary punk band Bad Religion, about his forthcoming "old-time music" meets Seventies California country-rock solo album (out March 10th on Anti). "There's a great amount of symbolism in that idea," continues Graffin, who has led Bad Religion for almost four decades since the band's start in 1979. "It goes along with me being an aging punk rocker that's coming to terms with my own mortality and humanity. Somehow, we persist in the face of modernity and things always trying to move past us."

Graffin explores this relationship, both sonically and lyrically, throughout the 10 tracks on Millport, with its most crystallizing connections being found in the folksy album opener "Backroads of My Mind." Finding its inspiration in the picturesque landscape of the farmlands, forests and Finger Lakes of upstate New York Graffin calls home, "Backroads" works on multiple levels. "When I turned 50, I started thinking that there are avenues of my mind that I haven't explored for over 25 years," Graffin tells Rolling Stone Country. "The lyric 'They’ve long been neglected and lately they’re in decline' describes my brain just as much as it describes the roads around my house." (Listen to the song below.)

The idea that parts of Graffin's brain are still unexplored may come as a shock to longtime fans, as he has notable side gigs as a college professor and author. Over the years, Graffin has taught classes on science, paleontology and evolution at UCLA and Cornell University and has written multiple books on the topics of science and religion, including Anarchy Evolution and Evolution and Religion. "Last year I put out a book called Population Wars that is an academic attempt at explaining persistence in the face of change," Graffin explains. "Millport is kind of my musical expression of that paradox."

For Graffin, the ability to find the intersecting points between two seemingly contradictory experiences is one that he's been honing since he was a kid. "My family was very musically oriented and we sang in harmony all the time because my mother was raised in a strict religious setting where there was a lot of a capella singing, but instruments weren’t allowed," he says. "When I was 11, we moved from Wisconsin to Southern California and it was the heyday of the California country rock sound. The Eagles, Emmylou Harris and Crosby, Stills and Nash were all over the radio. What you hear on Millport is a sense of both of those places and the cultural differences between southeastern Wisconsin and southern California. It’s the influential combination of rural church music and Linda Ronstadt."

To help achieve that particular sonic synthesis, Graffin enlisted a few fellow-minded friends to shape the sound of Millport. This included bringing on his Bad Religion cohort Brett Gurewitz as a producer and building a backing band of Jonny "Two Bags" Wickersham on guitar, Brent Harding on bass and David Hidalgo Jr. on drums, who are all members of the iconic L.A. punk band Social Distortion. "For the very first Bad Religion show almost 40 years ago, we actually played with Social Distortion. It's unbelievable to me that both bands followed this parallel trajectory and we also both have this deep love of American music with all its various influences."

Rounding out the rustic roots music tableau of Millport on banjo and fiddle is David Bragger, curator of the American music preservationist initiative the Old-Time Tiki Parlour and a childhood friend of Graffin. All of these familiar partnerships contributed greatly to the album's homegrown vibe and its impressively quick 10-day turnaround time. "The guys really learned the material and gave their expertise to this music before we even pushed the record button," Graffin says.

Along with his other two solo releases, 1997's American Lesion and 2006's Cold as the Clay, Millport re-establishes Graffin's membership in the ever-growing punk-goes-roots club that includes artists like Mike Ness (Social Distortion), Chris Shiflett (Foo Fighters/Me First and the Gimme Gimmes), John Doe (X), Brian Fallon (Gaslight Anthem) and Mike Herrera (MxPx). Citing Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Doc Watson ("'The Cuckoo' on Ballads from Deep Gap is absolutely one of my favorite tunes – it is just so evocative,” he says) as important influences, Graffin notes that one of his most kindred musical spirits happens to be a central figure in country's neo-traditionalist movement. "I really like Ricky Skaggs," he says. "He’s one of my favorite singers and he motivated me to try to write a bluegrass song. Bluegrass has such aggressive harmonies, just like Bad Religion, and it's a very challenging style to sing, just like a lot of Bad Religion songs."

Whether noting the shared characteristics between bluegrass and punk rock or finding resonance with the enduring spirit of seemingly forgotten American towns, Graffin sees his paradox of persistence all around him. "I think Millport is a good metaphor to represent 'Anywhere, U.S.A.' There's a real Millport around where I live and it's a small blink-and-you'll-miss-it town that holds an incredibly interesting history," he says. "Today it's all just remnants. This is typical of things in America and throughout Europe. You see these old buildings and artifacts, yet they are somehow persisting. The fact that they’ve been around for so long, and are still there, should give us pause."