Chroniclers of History and Heartbreaks: Tom Russell, Katy Moffatt and Dave Alvin
Every songwriter who's ever penned a tune has written a heartbreak song, but few have managed to chronicle heartbreak properly, and fewer still have performed songs that give sadness a historical context. Tom Russell, Katy Moffatt and Dave Alvin are three of that rare breed.
Public Domain: Songs from the Wild Land (Hightone) was Dave Alvin's reinterpretation of the public domain songs/stories written by America's anonymous troubadours. Alvin often casts new light on these old tunes, remaking mountain ballads in a Chicago blues style or adding a little Cajun cayenne to "Dark Eyes," an American folk tune with murky origins far from the bayou. Alvin reminds us that the story is the same no matter the setting, and that the truth in a song is timeless. "Folks songs are archetypal," he says, "and those archetypes are still around. Today Blackjack David may be driving a Camaro or some other muscle car, and not riding a horse." With a voice as deep as the plumbing of a four-story building and a constantly percolating sense of humor, Alvin is the thinking man's garage-rock hero remade as a gifted singer-songwriter.
While Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris bask in well-deserved, middle-age, alt-country diva limelight, their contemporary Katy Moffatt lingers beneath the surface. She has never caved in to trends, whether the tagalong rootsy L.A. club rock of the '80s or the rise of insurgent country in the '90s. Moffatt's most recent, Cowboy Girl, is thematically similar to Alvin's Public Domain; they even share a song, the haunting frontier ballad "Texas Rangers." But Moffatt's effort is more narrowly focused, sticking almost exclusively to traditional cowboy tunes and a few of her own new compositions along those lines.
Russell is perhaps best known for The Man from God Knows Where, an insightful collage of vignettes about his ancestors' migration from Norway and Ireland to America. Looking for renewal and hope, his characters wrestle with servitude, overextended dreams and hard-won knowledge. More recently, Russell remade Orson Welles's Mexican border film noir, A Touch of Evil, as his album Borderlands. This smoky, meandering CD floods the ear with an exploration of El Paso and Juarez, the divided metropolis Russell has called home for the last five years.
When three songwriters of this caliber show up in Conroe, even Inner Loopers who cringe at the thought of venturing beyond Beltway 8 need check their phobias and head into the pines.
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