Chris Sand likes to think of his new album, "American Road Trip," as a mix tape that covers his career to this point. Over the course of 20 years, he's released 13 albums and seven tapes that merged plain-spoken cowboy music with early 1980s hip-hop, criss-crossing the country as a troubadour.
"It's not only about the American experience, it's also meant to be something that you put it in your CD player and you drive somewhere," he said.
There are light-hearted rap songs ("Down at Habashi"), serious folk songs ("Farmor (Father's Mother,)" about his grandmother), outlaw country ("Bull") and recitations of cowboy poetry over hip-hop beats.
The musical detours take place over a day-like time-line. Each song is accompanied by a line of text. ("4 a.m. A curious dream in a cabin on Killdeer Mountain," "Noon. Lunch in Glendive? ... Nope," "11 p.m. Pining in Deer Lodge.")
Sand recently completed a 30-show, 45-day solo tour that found him going from Leadville, Colorado, down to Missouri and through Nashville, Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Texas and California and more.
He worked as a truck driver on and off for five and a half years, and isn't a stranger to long hauls. His tune "Trucker Song" is one of the many that draws on those experiences.
He likes to spend January and February on the road, where he can escape Missoula's dreary weather, visit old friends and make frequent stops at hot springs, preferably the free ones that require a hike in.
The travel, though, is a way of feeling like a citizen of the country as a whole.
"I feel like the country keeps getting more and more separated, so it's a political act for me to travel and be reminded that we're not all the same, yet we are fellow citizens. It's easy to get stuck in your own little pocket and forget about the rest of the country," he said.
Sand grew up in Ronan and graduated high school there in 1989.
"My dad's from North Dakota. I feel like a dual citizen because I went to first and second grade there, and I spent all my summers there riding horses on my grandparents' ranch," he said, out at Killdeer Mountain in the western half of the state.
His dad worked as a carpenter and his mom as a counselor at Salish Kootenai College. He liked outlaw country and she liked Cat Stevens; Sand also heard folk-related artists like Rob Quist and Greg Brown who'd play in the area.
He first began listening to hip-hop via break-dancing compilations, which included early tracks in the genre like Nucleus' "Jam On It."
"All that stuff really saturated me and helped me feel like there's more to life than Reba McEntire and Alabama," he said. That meant new names like Run-DMC, Grandmaster Flash, LL Cool J joined the older guard of Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash, plus politically minded folk artists Woody Guthrie and Utah Phillips.
He remembers writing a book of poetry when he was 14, one that included both poems and raps.
"My grandpa's brother was a cowboy poet, so I grew up on cowboy poetry," he said. (That relative was also named Chris Sand.)
"I've always thought that cowboy poetry and rap have a lot in common, with the rhyming couplets and use of colloquialism, brag talk, oftentimes working class or poor. They're both folk musics in my mind," he said.
"American Road Trip" includes two performances of cowboy poems, one each from Bruce Kiskaddon ("A Cowboy's Prayer") and Badger Clark, the first poet laureate of South Dakota. ("When They've Finished Shipping Cattle in the Fall.")
Both are recited over relaxed hip-hop beats, and not an attempt to translate them into the cadences of rap.
"It felt appropriate to pay tribute to these old ramblers who influenced me," he said.
Sand began performing at age 20. Some other ideas bled in when he transferred to Evergreen State College in Olympia, where he lived for 11 years. The city had an unusually high ratio of do-it-yourself rock and punk, with celebrated labels like K Records and Kill Rock Stars. Sand at one point played a few gigs with Calvin Johnson, the K Records founder and frontman for Beat Happening.
His career caught some attention from media outlets around the country with "Roll Out, Cowboy," a 2010 documentary portrait directed by Elizabeth Lawrence.
She saw him at a gig in Chicago and reached out to him after she'd finished film school and moved to New York. Her film collected some awards on the festival circuit, while Sand continued driving trucks.
He said he wasn't able to capitalize on the buzz it generated. It created a segue, though, after he got it screened the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. When the festival's former director, Mike Steinberg, launched the Roxy Theater as an art-house community cinema, he brought Sand on board, where he's stayed through a series of different gigs.
"American Road Trip" is the first in a series of three albums.
"The reason it feels like a triptych to me is that 'American Road Trip' is the past. It tidily wraps up my career as a troubadour," he said.
It's the first album he's released since moving back to Missoula just before the birth of his daughter. Stevie, now just over 4 years old, marked a change in his lifestyle and songwriting.
After she was born, he began writing songs about her. Those and some previously unrecorded tunes from his back catalog with a "child-like quality" will make up the children's album, he said.
The other entry, "Hard Lessons," is more serious.
" 'Hard Lessons' is also about the future, about how we are going to survive as a nation, given all the differences we seem to have," he said.
The first one, marks a sort of an ending and a new beginning.
"It feels like a coming-home record, in a way," he said.