Friday, March 7, 2008

Tour of the 'Villes

Since road trips seem to be on my mind today, I'll continue with another US-memoir. A couple of years back I had occasion to go on a grand tour of the southern 'Villes, to wit: start in Gainesville, Florida, drive up to Louisville, Kentucky and finally, crossing the Smokies, end up in another Gainesville - this one in Georgia. This peculiar itinerary was occasioned by a couple of invites (the two Gainesvilles) and a conference on 20th C. literature sandwiched in between (it was easier to get travel grants if the trip included a big conference to-do)...

Whenever a road trip is called for, it is crucial to stock up on local interest CDs. For this trip the new acquisitions included Daniel Lanois, for the Acadian flavour, a bit of Alison Krauss for the bluegrass tie-in (it was cool to cross into Kentucky to the strands of "A Man of Constant Sorrow"), and finally Emmylou Harris' Red Dirt Girl to celebrate that not all of the soil in question ended up on the necks of Rednecks...

Red Dirt Girl is actually the best Daniel Lanois-produced CD I've ever heard. Only problem is he had nothing to do with the production and recording of it! He did do Emmylou's previous album, but the sound of this one is even more typical of his work: the hopping bass-line, fuzzy scratchy guitars, and juicy-bone cajun rhythms. Turns out it's Malcolm Burn who is responsible for that - not inconceivably because he has worked as engineer on many Lanois productions, including Dylan's Oh Mercy, and Wrecking Ball, the previous Emmylou offering. Kinda makes you wonder who learned from whom in that producer-engineer partnership... Check out some of Burn's work on MySpace. Don't miss his foray into weird indie film-making, Touched.

One of the most attractive songs on Red Dirt Girl is the bouncy up-tempo job "One Big Love". Emmylou Harris wrote or co-wrote all the songs on the disc - except that one! Mind you, she did a wonderful job, esp. on the ballads - "Michelangelo" and "My Antonia" (interesting duet w. Dave Matthews, channeling Marty Robbins), and the title track is a nice Southern epic, following two close friends from childhood to untimely end. But still it's the irresistible beat of "One Big Love" that has recently re-caught my fancy.

The songwriter of that track is Patty Griffin, whose lyrics do a great job of catching the sentiments of youths celebrating their first serious love affairs during one of those special summers you think you'll have a whole bunch of while you grow up, but which in retrospect you realize that we are only allotted one or two of per life time... The lyrics encourage a carefree and non-violent outlook on life, and cooly advocate being a lover, not a fighter:

I guess I'm taking my chances
Giving up the ring throwing in the gloves
I guess I'm taking my chances
Trading in my things
A couple wings on a little white dove
And one big love, one big love
But the best part of the track is the rhythm, a re-working of a dance beat that could have been born in the late 1950s ("Everybody do like a Monkey", Griffin's lyrics urge us on), but definitely has 21. century spices added. A reference that might be a bridge between this beat and the fictive Monkeybeat of the 50s could be The Bangles' 80s gem, "Walk Like an Egyptian" - the video is still fun, but boy how fast the 80s got old!!

Emmylou's version of "One Big Love" is bound to make you happy. It certainly beats Griffin's rather insipid original, but Patty is still worth checking out. MySpace also gives you a few good songs by her. I am particularly fond of a grand ballad such as "Heavenly Day" - another, but very different, happy-maker...

Emmylou has a fine website with lots of sources, such as interviews and other goodies. Each album in her long career gets a little page of its own, including of course Red Dirt Girl. Emmylou goes track by track in her commentary and has this to say about "One Big Love":

This is the only one I didn't write. Malcolm felt that this record needed a song that could just be enjoyed for its groove. And after I heard this track I knew he was right. It's a great groove.
David Bowman did a great interview with Harris when the record came out, and it's clear that she is no slouch in the thinking department as well as the groove dept. But let's close with a couple of bona fide Lanois/Emmylou collaborations from Wrecking Ball, "Orphan Girl" & "Blackhawk":

The tour of the 'Villes certainly was a groovy trip, not least because of the good musical road companions we kept!

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