Date: Friday, May 3rd, 2013
Time: 7:30 pm
Location: Stuart’s Opera House
In 1990, using the name Smog, the singer and songwriter Bill Callahan released his début album, “Sewn to the Sky.” It’s a discordant, inscrutable, and periodically frustrating collection of mostly instrumental, low-fidelity noise, and contains few hints of the lucid and tender folk music that he would be making almost thirty years later. In 1991, Callahan signed with Drag City, a Chicago-based independent record label that specializes in oddball rock and roll. He began collaborating with the producers Jim O’Rourke, who was later a member of Sonic Youth, and John McEntire, of the band Tortoise. His music became progressively more melodic, though it never stopped being deeply idiosyncratic. Callahan just turned fifty-three. His new double album, “Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest,” is a powerful meditation on home and its comforts, a collection of stirring songs that suggest that family can be a kind of salvation.
Callahan has a still, heavy baritone that is somehow both entirely affectless and drenched with feeling. He is unhurried, both in conversation—if you ask him a question, he will answer slowly and deliberately, pausing as necessary to gather his thoughts—and in his songs, which make very good use of quiet. “I liked the minimal approach of having a song with just a few words,” Callahan told me recently, of his early work. He was influenced by blues singers such as John Lee Hooker, who frequently turned a brief, meaningless phrase into a driving rhythmic mantra, stripping the words of meaning. Like Hooker, Callahan often eschews the verse-chorus-verse structure. His songs advance gently, like a winding road.
Callahan can easily be slotted into a continuum of clever and morose songwriters such as Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, and Callahan’s Drag City colleague Will Oldham. But Callahan’s recent work is suffused with gratitude and even joy. In 2011, the filmmaker Hanly Banks started making the documentary “Apocalypse: A Bill Callahan Tour Film.” In 2014, Callahan and Banks married; they had a son and settled in Austin.
“Dream River,” Callahan’s album from 2013, is a poignant reflection on what it feels like to finally meet the person you believe you’re meant to love forever. “I always went wrong in the same place / Where the river splits towards the sea / That couldn’t possibly be / You and me,” he sings on “Small Plane,” a spare and haunting song that almost trembles with emotion. Its refrain is adamant and humble: “I really am a lucky man.”
Musicians have long fretted over the notion that getting married, having children, or in any way embracing a more rooted life style will stifle their ability to make interesting art. It’s a presumption that seems at least partially born of a very silly sort of misogyny, yet you would nonetheless be hard put to list many canonical rock records about a happy family. By contrast, there are plenty about love gone wrong.
“Country singers might talk about their wives, but that’s about it,” Callahan joked. “At first, I wanted to just pretend like nothing had happened, and write about other stuff, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. I realized the songwriter had to be married and have a kid, too. That was the only way anything was going to get done.”
On the song “Writing,” Callahan tells about the curious haven of work: “It sure feels good to be writing again / And stuck in the high rapids / As night closes in.” Humming strings form a kind of cocoon around his voice. He sounds as if he’s been tucked into an extremely comfortable bed.
Callahan and Banks briefly moved to Santa Barbara when their son was a toddler, so that Banks could go to graduate school. “I couldn’t do any work there,” he said. “When we came back, all of the songs started pouring out of me. That was the first time I really thought, O.K., this must be home.” He continued, “That was the first time I recognized what a home could be.”
“Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest” was recorded in Austin, at a studio near Callahan’s house. Although the album is warm and contented, it’s not without moments of tension. Callahan is concerned about what happens after a person has found someone to love, and started a family, and maybe work is going O.K., and it’s spring, and the garden is coming in—it’s a soft, midlife kind of wondering, trying to figure out how to manage or to understand what might take the place of longing. Is desire itself a kind of perpetual-motion machine? He grapples with the idea on “What Comes After Certainty”:
“Those lines probably do a good job of summing up the record,” Callahan said. “As humans, we’re hardwired to desire and to want things that we don’t have. Once we get those things, we’re still hardwired to be full of desire.”
Callahan has always been quick with a joke in his songs—a wry aside, a sardonic observation, a perfectly self-skewering stanza. “Humor opens a door in people,” he said. “Funny things are true.” Still, “Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest” is perhaps Callahan’s most earnest record. “Lonesome Valley,” a traditional spiritual, appears toward the end of the album. The song’s refrain (“Everybody’s got to walk the lonesome valley / You’ve got to walk it by yourself”) takes on a new subject (“My father’s got to walk . . . ,” “My mother’s got to walk . . . ,” “My sister’s got to walk . . . ”) each time it repeats. In this way, the song keeps opening up, getting bigger, pulling more voices into the lonesome fold.
The Carter Family recorded a version of “Lonesome Valley” in Memphis, in 1930. A. P. Carter, the band’s patriarch, had worked as a travelling salesman, during which time he roamed central Appalachia, knocking on doors and “collecting” old folk songs. (He was often accompanied by the guitarist Lesley Riddle, a kind of savant when it came to remembering melodies.) There are earlier commercial recordings of “Lonesome Valley,” and a transcription of a song called “The Lonesome Valley,” with different lyrics, appears in W. F. Allen, C. P. Ware, and L. M. Garrison’s “Slave Songs of the United States,” from 1867—as with many traditional songs, “Lonesome Valley” was likely composed by hundreds of people over just as many years—but Carter was credited on the Victor release as the song’s author.
Callahan’s version is loping and solemn. Banks sings the backing harmonies; her voice is rich and gentle. “I was thinking a lot about my family,” Callahan said. “My mother had cancer. I tried to help her and comfort her, but, essentially, she had to go through that herself, even though I was there.” Callahan came to see the song’s central theme—that there are certain journeys we inevitably undertake unaccompanied—as nearly comforting. While life can be solitary and confounding, we still share the burden of reasoning through it. That “Lonesome Valley” is, itself, a grand musical collaboration, honed and imagined by dozens of different writers, only reemphasizes the sentiment.
The idea of communal befuddlement and communal peace has been present in Callahan’s discography for a while. For me, hearing him and his wife sing “Lonesome Valley” as a duet, their voices never quite melding, but each nonetheless lifting the other, is a moving argument for partnership as a guiding, palliative force—a way to keep on, alone, together.
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