Over the last few decades, American folk music — like jazz and blues — has largely ceased to be a genre of any commercial importance. Many point to Dylan “going electric” as the death knell for folk’s relevance; others to the square, bitter, anti-rock stance taken by flagship artists like Peter, Paul & Mary. It isn’t as simple as all that, of course, but the end result is that “folk,” for awhile now, has been reduced to a pair of stereotypes: 1) leftist political protest music made by rumpled, foul-smelling militant hippies, or 2) awful “Kumbaya”-esque crap made by rumpled, foul-smelling hippies who are trying to get laid.
The latter image is far more prevalent. There’s a telling scene which occurs in Don’t Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker’s study of Bob Dylan’s 1964 tour. During a party in Dylan’s hotel suite attended by Joan Baez and assorted others, we see Scottish folk singer Donovan singing to a small group of people. Dylan then asks if he can borrow Donovan’s guitar, and proceeds to sing the most venomous version possible of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” After the song, the camera zooms in on Donovan, outclassed and completely forgotten by the rest of the party. He pipes up, “I used to know a girl named Baby Blue.” No one cares. And then there’s the scene in Animal House where John Belushi’s Bluto, wandering around the toga party, encounters a bespectacled flower-power folkie serenading a gaggle of sorority sisters; without a word, Belushi grabs Four Eyes’ guitar and smashes it over his head. The message was clear: folk is dead, long live rock & roll.
This was, obviously, never completely true. Folk tropes cropped up in Top 40 music throughout the ’70s and ’80s — in every single Springsteen album, for instance — even if they were not explicitly acknowledged as such. The master craftsmen, like Seeger and Havens, recorded infrequently, but they never went away; likewise, the young folk lions of the ’60s — like Dylan or Baez or even James Taylor — refused to turn their backs on the genre completely. There was bound to be a revival. And that, folks, is where we come in with today’s selection.
Around the mid-to-late ’80s, major labels started to notice a new group of folk artists. They were more diverse than the Seegers and Guthries of decades past; the “new folk” label could apply to traditionalists like Ellis Paul or Jonell Mosser just as easily as it could to the more overtly commercial Shawn Colvin. And the new folkies could be obvious direct descendants of living masters, like the Richie Havens-channeling Cliff Eberhardt, or they could head off in new directions entirely, like Patty Griffin. Though it’s doubtful anybody in a record label boardroom ever thought the “new folk” would be a huge commercial success, having an “Americana” imprint was sort of prestigious — it meant the suits hadn’t been entirely blinded to the meaning and appeal of music at the root level. A&M Records, recognizing this, greenlighted one of the silliest names for a label in the history of the majors — A&Mericana — and signed today’s artist, David Wilcox.
Wilcox had been plying his trade in and around Asheville, North Carolina, for some years, and had become a favorite fixture at the legendary Bluebird Cafe. The Bluebird’s proprietor, Amy Kurland, was instrumental in the development of his career — even after the release of his second A&M album, the label was referring publicity calls to her — and it’s easy to see why she took such an interest. Other artists may have been more implicitly traditional, and thus more representative of “true” folk, but Wilcox’s smooth vocals and emotional lyrics hinted at bigger things. His music was strongly reminiscent of James Taylor’s, without the cloying sentimentality that had plagued Taylor since the mid-’70s, and his unorthodox tunings attracted the attention of critics and guitarists. Ultimately, I suppose you could say Wilcox never lived up to his potential; though he enjoys a devoted following, he never became a huge star, even on the smaller Americana stage, and as time has gone by, his work has increasingly lost its moorings — his most recent album is so painfully ponderous, I’m not even including it in today’s Complete Idiot’s Guide. For a time, though, he had his finger strongly on the human pulse, and crafted a series of solidly thoughtful albums. Here they are.
The Nightshift Watchman (1987)
Though it’s nowhere near as polished or confident as what would follow, Watchman is suprisingly solid for an independently released folk album from 1987. The title track, about a man working the graveyard shift at a missile silo, sounds dated today, and it remains one of the only times Wilcox has visited political themes in his work. Far more enjoyable is the wide-eyed optimism of “Sunshine on the Land” and “That’s Why I’m Laughing.”
Sunshine on the Land | That’s Why I’m Laughing
How Did You Find Me Here (1989)
It’s no Born To Run, but for a folk musician in 1989, How Did You Find Me Here came fairly close — the album won him a modicum of critical attention on the national stage, nearly unanimous in its praise, and A&M realized it had a potential moneymaker on its hands. To that end, this album’s “Eye of the Hurricane” became something of a modest hit for Wilcox, at least on AAA stations, and that’s why he’s played it at basically every single concert he’s done since 1989. (And that is why I’m not including it here.) The major themes in Wilcox’s music are established on this album — love (”Common as the Rain”); traditional small-town life (”Rusty Old American Dream”); and non-conformity (”Leave It Like It Is”). With the spellbindingly wistful “The Kid,” written by Buddy Mondlock, he also shows a real talent for choosing and recording other people’s songs.
Common as the Rain | Rusty Old American Dream | Leave It Like It Is | The Kid
Home Again (1991)
I was working as a music critic when Home Again was released, meaning that my afternoons were typically spent working my way through enormous piles of CDs, most of them honestly, objectively terrible. The experience made me jaded fairly quickly, and I grew to expect very little from new music — which is why this album was such a profound surprise. To this day, I clearly remember putting Home Again into my player for the first time, pressing “play,” and not getting up until the album was over. I don’t pretend that these songs will affect everyone the same way, but for me, this is a real desert-island disc, and a practically perfect encapsulation of what modern folk music can and should be. The format itself is problematic, you see — totally open and sincere in an age of pervasive and probably irreversible cynicism — and for this reason, probably more than any other, most folk music fails to transcend its trappings. At best, it’s just “pretty”; at worst, it’s embarrassing. Here, Wilcox is nothing if not open and sincere, but he embraces these qualities as he plumbs to emotional depths; the result is sentimentality limned with a raw honesty that precludes mawkish sappiness.
In “Covert War,” for instance, he looks back at the emotional damage wrought by his parents, owns up to his own complicity, and refuses to feed the cycle anymore. “You taught us well not to kick under the table,” he sings to his parents, “Kick under your breath instead” — but the line is devoid of emotional histrionics, or more than a hint of rage; instead of being about blame, it’s about self-discovery and maturity. Similarly, “Distant Water” manages to point the finger of blame at a cruel former lover while recognizing the fingers pointing back. Even “Advertising Man,” and its pithy attack on Big Tobacco, are not without emotional weight. But the album’s real centerpiece, in my opinion, is “Chet Baker’s Unsung Swan Song,” which imagines the troubled Baker’s final few moments of life before he plummeted to his death from a hotel window in Amsterdam. However, even if you know nothing about Baker, the song will strike a chord. Wilcox, as Baker, sits in a tiny lifeboat, well aware that any movement will send him to a watery grave — yet he can’t resist. He sees life beyond the boat, and though he knows what it means for him — though he knows, ultimately, that it’s a lie — he reaches out anyway. The song is universal in its tragic beauty, and though Wilcox would disagree (somewhat pointedly, as I learned when interviewing him a few years later), it represents the best of what he has to offer as an artist.
Covert War | Advertising Man | Farther To Fall | Distant Water | Chet Baker’s Unsung Swan Song
Big Horizon (1994)
A&M put a fairly big advertising push behind Home Again, and it was rewarded with next to nothing in sales, so Wilcox was pressed to make a more commercial-sounding record for his next release. In my first interview with him, after Big Horizon came out, he talked about how these recordings were so much more “simple” than the stuff on Home Again, and I think now what I thought then: He’s crazy. There may be fewer instruments on a few of these songs, but the difference is in how they’re used. It’s the difference, to use a painterly analogy, between applying forty coats with a wide roller and using forty colors with a small brush. Home Again was finely crafted; Big Horizon was made for AAA radio. For proof, look no further than the album’s two pointless covers: John Waite’s “Missing You” and the Four Tops’ “The Same Old Song.” Compared to the high-tech sheen of, say, Britney Spears, this is like a concert in your living room; when measured against other folk albums of the era, though, the production gloss is intrusive and obnoxious. Which isn’t to say there aren’t some good songs — “Someday Soon” shows Wilcox at his hopeful best, and “That’s What The Lonely Is For” is brilliant. In some ways, though, I prefer the stripped-back introspection of “All The Roots Grow Deeper When It’s Dry.” Perhaps Wilcox agreed; after Horizon came and went, he parted ways with A&M and decided to go the indie route.
Someday Soon | That’s What The Lonely Is For | All The Roots Grow Deeper When It’s Dry
East Asheville Hardware (1996)
East Asheville was intended as a stopgap release, to whet fans’ appetites during another uncharacteristically long wait between studio albums. As such, it isn’t a live album in the typical sense, in that it doesn’t contain Wilcox’s best-known songs; more than anything, it’s a collection of offbeat leftovers and covers that didn’t fit anywhere else, as well as glimpses of the entertaining and charismatic storyteller Wilcox could be in a live setting. Though he didn’t write it, “Blow ‘Em Away” became a concert staple.
Blow ‘Em Away (live) | Mango (live)
Turning Point (1997)
Fans who had been hoping that a return to his indie roots would also mean a return to the simplicity of his early work were disappointed and confused by Turning Point. Not only was the production at least as mainstream as that of Big Horizon, the album also saw Wilcox “going electric” on CD for the first time. On one level, you’ve got to appreciate how constrained Wilcox must have felt after ten years of doing one thing, even if he did it so well; however, a lot of Turning Point simply doesn’t have the emotional weight of his earlier work. Additionally, for fans who were indifferent or hostile to songs about Wilcox’s religious feelings, the album sounded the first ominous note in what would become a growing refrain. It must be said, however, that Turning Point rewards repeated listens — particularly the songs included here.
Show Me the Key | Tattered Old Kite | Turning Point
Underneath is a difficult record. Neither as risky as Turning Point nor as resonant as Home Again, the album finds Wilcox reaching to make grand statements — something he’d be doing on a distressingly regular basis — rather than tapping into universal themes. For whatever reason, it was now easier for him to talk at his audience rather than with them, and this new overreliance on soapboxing was uncomfortable for some longtime fans. As a result, though Underneath is a more traditional-sounding album than Turning Point, it’s also a less-important entry in his catalog.
Spirit Wind | Slipping Through My Fist
What You Whispered (2000)
He still tours and records, but this is what I regard, at least for now, as David Wilcox’s last album. The release after this one, 2003’s Into the Mystery, is a soggy mess — lyrically preachy (both in the secular and the religious senses of the word) and musically muddled; an unappealing hash of New Age Christianity and programmed beats. Though he’s clearly letting go of his tether on What You Whispered, there are still enough traces of the old humor and clear-eyed humanism to save portions of the album: “In the Broken Places” is about dusting off and getting on, the title track is a wistful look back at a lifelong love affair, and “Soul Song” — even if it carries a pungent whiff of what was to come from Wilcox — is moving. While not his strongest album, it was probably his best since Big Horizon, and — for those fans not willing to follow him through recordings of medieval religious canticles, sung as duets with his wife — a fitting coda.
What You Whispered | In the Broken Places | Soul Song
Live Songs & Stories (2002)
If East Asheville Hardware wasn’t a “real” live album, then Live Songs & Stories serves that purpose, but in the end, it turns out not to have been necessary. The magic of a David Wilcox concert is in his one-to-one rapport with the audience, and in his gift for leavening the weighty moments with bursts of laughter at just the right moments. With many performers, live performance frees their songs from inferior studio recordings; with Wilcox, this is most often not the case. You buy the ticket not to hear what the song really sounds like, but to take a magic carpet ride for a few hours. That’s something that can’t be duplicated on compact disc, and it renders most of Live Songs & Stories superfluous. Here, though, are the live favorite “Good Together” and the funny ha-ha “Moe.”
Good Together (live) | Moe (live)
And, for good measure, a few odds & sods. “Johnny’s Camaro” is almost as much of a concert staple as “Eye of the Hurricane,” though it hasn’t been on any of Wilcox’s albums. This version is from a four-song promo released by A&M in conjunction with Home Again. “Hymn for the Highway” and “September 12″ were offered for free on his website after (you guessed it) September 11.
As always, these will be up for a week…download…enjoy…and let me know what you think!