“Leave the Oil in the Ground … Let the Rivers FLOW”


By Jacob Wheeler

If you tuned into WNMC, the public radio station at Northwestern Michigan College, recently you may have heard Kurt Westie interview FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood on the air. Westie, a singer-songwriter and member of the band The North Carolines,” wrote a song during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown titled, “Leave the Oil in the Ground”—an artistic call to shut down Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac. He spoke to FLOW about his environmental inspiration, his interest in FLOW, and his most recent album.

FLOW: How does your call to protect water and the environment inspire your work as an artist and a musician?

Kurt Westie: Even from an early age, I was moved by the protest/awareness type songs of Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Barry McGuire, etc. More recently I have been appalled by the callous disregard for clean, safe groundwater from fracking, etc. Because of this, I was moved to write a “protest/awareness” type anthem specifically about water protection and the need for the decommissioning of Line 5.

FLOW: What drew you to support FLOW?

Kurt Westie: I have been aware of FLOW and their great work for some time and have had an interest in finding a way to make a contribution to the cause. I had a synchronistic conversation with FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood in 2019 at a wedding where I was performing with my band, The North Carolines. We discussed possibly doing a fundraiser concert, but then COVID hit!

Due to the “lockdown,” I shifted my attention from a concert to writing a message song; an anthem for water protection that FLOW could use to promote their work.

FLOW: How was the song, “Leave the Oil in the Ground,” born? Tell us more about the message behind that song.

Kurt Westie: As I was saying, I had time during the COVID “lockdown” to work on an album project. The song that inspired the project was “Oil,” as most of it came together fairly quickly. I wrote the “bridge” separately, but it fit the song structure well, so it was inserted later. I need to give a lot of credit for the final arrangement and co-production to both Ivan Grelick (guitars, bass) and Scott Zylstra (backing vocals), along with Roger Tarcson (drums) and Caroline Barlow (backing vocals).

I wanted to write a song that had a strong message and had the feel of an old Byrds/Dylan song, mixed with a more rocking Tom Petty-type tune. Good lyrics that were supported by great backing vocals were also critical in getting the production right. I’m very pleased with how the song came out.

Specifically, my goal for the song lyrically was to have an easy-to-relate message about how our country’s natural resources have been “stolen” by corrupt corporations and politicians. The song speaks to how “the rich and the greedy” benefit at the expense of people at large. It concludes in the bridge and last verse with a plea to “let the wind and the sun and the waters bring the power to the people”—an intentional double meaning. The song ends with the full chorus, beginning with “Let the rivers FLOW” (I had to do it!) and “Let the people stand for this cause so dear, and leave the oil in the ground and far away from here.”

FLOW: Tell us about the album you wrote during COVID about environmental and justice equality issues. How were these songs born? And when/where/how can we hear them?

Kurt Westie: Originally my inspiration was to just write the song for FLOW, however, because I had the time during COVID, I decided to finish some old song starts and repurpose other unrecorded pieces (and new material) to fit an environmental/social justice narrative. The following is an outline of the songs I’ll likely use ( subject to change). The working title of the project is “The Reckoning to Come.”

1). Leave the Oil in the Ground—completed song. An environmental anthem.

2). I Must Be Dreaming—completed song. A freedom anthem. This song is a true “rocker,” with the feel reminiscent of a Crazy Horse song. It speaks to what happens when a government is corrupted by greed at the expense of the people at large. It also speaks to how greed and power led to the pandemic and the reluctance of the federal government to adequately support small businesses and the poor during the crisis. 

3). The Bern Down—a slower tearjerker that speaks to how the Democratic Party cheated Bernie twice at the bequest of their corporate captors.

I have 3-4 other songs that would fit the narrative; however, I’m thinking I will likely mix in some “lighter themed” songs  as well.

4). The Reckoning to Come—a song that’s still unfinished, but my working chorus kind of sums it up:

In the reckoning to come,

It will be Fellini’s Circus.

In the reckoning to come, 

there will be a brighter day.

In the reckoning to come, 

there will be fairness and Justice. 

In the reckoning to come, 

there will be some hell to pay.

— Kurt Westie, 2022

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