"I was just at lunch with my uncle," says Michael Fracasso with a nervous laugh. "He stuck $50 in my shirt pocket as I walked out the door."
It's the same old story, and, quite frankly, Fracasso knows as much: The black sheep breaks from family tradition -- and the subsequent career limitations of his blue-collar lineage -- to find his calling in an altogether alien artistic field. One in which his meager build and syrupy-sweet bird-song of a voice might be put to more effective use. Yet even today, at 45 and with an established life and career in Austin, Fracasso realizes he can't disavow the role his simple mill-town roots played in making him what he is today -- nor does he really want to.
"I'm definitely a rare bird," Fracasso admits, calling from his parents' home in the eastern Ohio town of Steubenville, where he's staying between Midwest tour dates. "My mother said that she named me after her boyfriend who was a singer -- she just loved the way he sang. He got killed in World War II. The night before I was born, she had a dream about him."
Raised in the tiny steel-industry enclave of Mingo Junction, Ohio, Fracasso has little in common with many of the Austin singer/songwriters he calls friends. And, naturally, that's what makes him so unique. Unlike his Texas-bred peers, Fracasso's thematic frame of reference was forged in the Rust Belt, his poetic foundation informed by the sense of beauty his Italian immigrant parents brought to the hard reality that surrounded them. Simply put, Fracasso finds elegance in some rather ugly places: hospital wards, busy restaurants, noisy apartment complexes, mine-pocked mountain ranges, inside the heads of the profoundly troubled. And he does so with an approach that is equal parts cheeky realism, daydreamy ennui and perfect tragicomic timing.
Invariably touching and harrowingly honest, Fracasso's third and latest release, World in a Drop of Water, reflects those elements with a poignancy so approachable it makes you uneasy. In his hands, an act as trivial as walking the dog becomes pivotal, an utterly crucial moment. "We see the same pets that we always do / Sparky and Wanda and Mr. Cantu," Fracasso sings on "World in a Drop of Water," his pitch wavering as the mood suddenly turns dire. "It's growing small, it's growing small / It's growing smaller every day." Just like that, a precious, string-laced ballad evolves into an ominous tribute to idle hours spent obsessing over a loved one's uncertain return.
But for those moments on Drop of Water when the intimacy becomes too intense, there's always the music, which is far and away Fracasso's most sophisticated and accessible yet. A culmination of his liberal stylistic license and preprogrammed melodic sensibilities, the 11-song CD never met a hook it didn't take advantage of, its focus flitting between blues-tinged folk, Byrdsy pop and languid roots rock while holding fast to the structural dictates of Fracasso's remarkable songs.
Longtime Austin underachiever Charlie Sexton makes the most of his multitude of talents on Drop of Water, producing, drumming and pitching in on a range of other instruments. The multi-hued guitar shadings of Sexton, Bart Willis and (especially) Mac McNabb are stunning and versatile without being overbearing. Despite the lush, mildly Beatlesque studio touches from Sexton, Fracasso never relinquishes control of his own material, and his aching, emotionally susceptible, Orbison-by-way-of-Roger McGuinn vocals are never less than powerful.
All of which should have amounted to a breakthrough for Fracasso. Instead, almost five months after World in a Drop of Water's release on the Denver-based independent label Bohemia Beat, the CD's wellspring of critical and commercial momentum has all but dried up. But Fracasso is trying not to let unrealized potential and dashed expectations -- which initially stemmed from Drop of Water's potential release on a major label -- get him down.
"I just felt that this would have been a great record to be picked up [by a major label]. But I frankly had the wrong people in place [to do so]," says Fracasso, who wound up firing both his manager and attorney upon Drop of Water's release. "I had a lawyer that kinda dropped the ball on it. But I'd been through this before [with my last CD]. The only thing you can do is hope to maintain a career despite all of it."
It would seem that Michael Fracasso's mill-worker dad couldn't have chosen a less glamorous piece of real estate for his Middle American homestead. Hugging the left side of the Ohio/West Virginia border -- where the closest thing to city life comes in the form of a crumbling eyesore called Youngstown, some 60 miles up the murky Ohio River -- Mingo Junction had its drawbacks, to say the least. Still, Fracasso's southern Italian parents more than made do, tending to their large vegetable garden and orchard, even making their own wine.
Young Michael, meanwhile, turned his ear toward AM radio hits and looked forward to the infrequent family trip to the Country Music Jamboree in nearby Wheeling, West Virginia. It was there that he saw his first live show: a performance by Kitty Wells.
"As a kid, I was always making up songs," Fracasso recalls. "But music was something I did on my own. My friends didn't understand it."
Soon enough came the requisite run-in with an acoustic guitar. Lessons with a local folk artist followed, tripping the switch for Fracasso's singer/songwriter muse. But Fracasso didn't immediately abandon the family's working-class lifestyle in Mingo Junction: He spent his summers laboring in a blast furnace before heading off to college -- first at Ohio State University, then Washington State. After school, he moved to New York City, where he was snared by the neo-folk scene blossoming in Greenwich Village. Hanging out at a venue called the Cornelia Street Cafe, Fracasso battled on-stage nerves in front of audiences that often included the likes of Suzanne Vega, the Roches and Steve Forbert. His early songs were featured on a handful of compilation albums.
But none of that was enough to keep him around. In 1990, gunning for a change, Fracasso moved to Austin, where he slowly and steadily found his bearings within the city's close-knit musical community. Not surprisingly, he established bonds with other out-of-staters, including Oklahoma transplant Jimmy LaFave. Eventually, he and LaFave became the anchor acts for Colorado computer whiz Mark Shumate's label, Bohemia Beat. Fracasso's Bohemia Beat debut, When I Lived in the Wild, was a self-consciously folky and literate affair, while its follow-up, Love and Trust, on Dejadisc, moved in a more rocking direction (and was almost picked up by Mercury Records, as a result). Fracasso sees each of his last two efforts as vastly different from the other, and that gaping variation, he admits, may have hurt more than it helped.
"I think the second record might have alienated the crowd that liked the first record," he says. "But now, I think the fans from the first record have come back."
If there is one thing that remains consistent in Fracasso's work, it's his unerring grasp on the more fascinating foibles of everyday humanity, juicy details that are rammed home with uncommon eloquence on World in a Drop of Water. And it's not always pretty: "More whiskey now I'm feeling better / A bit tipsy but I'm doing better / Doing the best that I can," Fracasso confides on "Hospital," his low disposition clashing wonderfully with the music's 12-string sunniness.
But sometimes Fracasso gets concerned that his dry sense of humor might be buried in all the stormy drama -- that people might miss the marvelous absurdity of a lyric like "You threw me a bone / It never surprised you / When I followed you home."
"I felt like the last record was maybe a little too heavy," he confides.
But Fracasso realizes that such a line might also be seen as a touch miserable, and that's okay, as well -- to a point.
"One of the things I do naturally is to create a sort of contrast; I just can't stand things that are way too morbid," Fracasso says. "Not trying to be deep or anything, but I just think things should be more than one-dimensional."
Michael Fracasso performs Thursday, July 30, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $5. Tom Faulkner opens. For info, call 869-
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