The Rockford Files – 2007

I’m sure no one who’s heard The Rockford Files will be surprised that the concept came to me almost immediately after hearing Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois in the summer of 2005 (I had actually written and recorded a version of “The Lights at Churchill Park” before leaving on tour that fall, but I ended up putting the album on hold to work on Josh Caress Goes On An Adventure!) Along with 2003’s Michigan, Sufjan had managed to dedicate albums to the two states I had the most nostalgic connection to. And, while the Michigan lakeshore had been a reference point in pretty much all the music I’d ever written, I had never found a way to write about Rockford, Illinois, where I lived until I was 10 years-old. I had never had a musical vocabulary for writing about early childhood – that is, until I heard Illinois.

Of course, Sufjan’s album is very different from The Rockford Files in subject matter, and I didn’t set out to copy it. It just opened the door for me to a whole way of writing that enabled me to explore my childhood in music for the first time. The banjos and acoustic instruments evoked instant familiarity and intimacy. They felt grounded and stable, like the family I grew up in. So I took those sounds and wrapped them in warm drones of reverbed electric guitar: this is the shroud of memory, the fuzziness of the dream as you look back through the layers of time to the wonder of being a kid.

I had never heard an artistic expression of a happy childhood, the common trope being that every great artist comes from the opposite background. But, perhaps because I had such a clear dividing line – I left Rockford when I was 10 and never lived there again – Rockford had always held this strongly evocative place in my mind, a place I had always felt was fertile for artistic exploration. It was a place of Christmas mornings, family dinners, summer lawns, baseball and popsicles. It was the place I wished I could go back to but knew I never could.

And this, really, is what The Rockford Files is about: the longing for home. Of course, I know that going back to Rockford as an adult would not be the same. Rockford does not necessarily mean any of those things to anyone except me, and (as someone has since pointed out to me) there’s not really anything to do there as an adult. So Rockford is a symbol, then. But a symbol for what exactly? It’s been said to me that a sacrament is the manifestation of a spiritual reality in corporeal form (i.e. Christ in the form of bread and wine). Or you could go with Plato’s allegory of the Cave, where we only see shadows of the true forms. This is much more subjective than either of those things, but, for me, Rockford here becomes the way that I experience the true idea (the Platonic form, the sacramental reality) of Home.

(If that sounds like a little much, the album also has some peppy numbers for the kids.)  🙂

Regardless of how successfully I was able to communicate my experience in some kind of universal way, The Rockford Files still works for me. Of everything I’ve done, I don’t know if it’s the best, but it’s the most important to me. It’s a story I’ve carried inside all of my life, and I’m so glad I was able to get it out.


-Josh Caress

May 2016