The music of Larry Jon Wilson became a part of my life thanks to the documentary ‘Heartworn Highways’, which features Larry and his band in the studio arranging and cutting a version of ‘Ohoopee River Bottomland’ (video clip below). It became the lead off tune of his first album for Monument, the excellent ‘New Beginnings’, though with quite a different arrangement. I would love to get my hands on a copy of the session featured in the film. It’s a little more rough and ready, funkier guitar licks and wilder harmonica work; it never hurts to have two versions of a great song.
I managed to get hold of an out of print CD re-issue of New Beginnings and Let Me Sing My Song To You for a high price, two of the four “country-funk” records that Wilson laid to tape between 1975 and 1979, just a few years after he picked up a guitar for the first time aged thirty. I played them to some friends as we cooked food over a fire last week and it made me happy to see them really get swept along those baritone ploughed grooves and wistful melodies. Even on his sad songs Larry Jon delivers a heartfelt glee, a lust for life and for playing music especially, which too often sounds warped and decayed by addiction in his fellow Heartworn Highway songwriters.
The new recordings which make up this new, self-titled album were laid down in 2007 on the fifteenth floor of a hotel on Perdido Key, an island which lies on the border of Florida and Alabama. This record has already made an appearance on these shores via 1965 records last year, but Drag City’s wise choice to release it for the first time in the US will surely bring Wilson’s music to an audience that might not have come across it otherwise; in the States and here too. I hope it sparks some more re-issues of those old records, two of which I still haven’t gotten the chance to hear.
After those four albums, the name Larry Jon Wilson disappeared from the recording industry, though that should not be confused with disappearing from music. He continued to play at home, and in bars across the South. His distaste for the industry and the “Music Row backslapping” could not sour the taste of music; perhaps seeing these two things as separate entities is the reason he so swiftly and decidedly turned his back on the studio, and the reason he is still writing and playing songs from the heart, a big, humble, laughing, loving heart. This is an extract from a 1979 interview with The Tennessean which has been reproduced in the liner notes:
“I’ve never written something because I wanted people to like it. I write because I have to,” he comments. “Many of the people I used to hang out with are famous now, and I haven’t been able to bring myself to say to them ‘I’ve got a song that would work perfect for you.’ When I see them now they have pinchers all around them doing that — people that wouldn’t give them sweat before their fame — and I don’t want to think of myself that way. Recognition among your peers is important. It’s a soul saving thing for me to know that the people with heart in Nashville care about my music.”
The songs are deft, intimate and often captivating, a record like this makes Johnny Cash’s American Recordings, the albums that so many people rave about, look like cartoons. Well drawn cartoons nonetheless. The wisdom and humanity offered here, carried by Wilson’s guitar and rich, soulful voice, shines so vividly in comparison with other “re-discovered” country musicians like Charlie Louvin, who’s strangely violent new album I reviewed here. Occasionally a lone fiddle accompanies him, but otherwise he is alone. These are the only terms on which he would agree to record again, likely as they represent the way in which he has been playing for the last thirty years. His guitar playing is nimble and places a high emphasis on clear phrasing, always laying below his voice which is certainly the main instrument.
The majority of the songs he played into a pair of microphones over the course of a few days are his own, though the five or so others that he covers sound completely integrated into the set. One of those is ‘Heartlands’, penned by Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan. A tale of an “American dream” which “fell apart at the seams”. It’s a simple tale of the collapse of a landscape and a man’s life, which leaves a hole in his chest where his heart should be and a hole in the sky where god once was.
Over softly picked guitar the man prophesies that the boy who buys his land from the auctioneer will experience just the same cycle of despair; it is an evaluation of corporatism and debt which skewers the system quietly, without socialist or communist overtones. Two men fail to make the debt repayments, and the moneylenders sell the house for the umpteenth time. It’s the kind of song that gets welcomed in by people who would happily leave a protest song out in the cold to freeze. It seems like Wilson sings it knowing the positive effect it might have on the people around him, the people he plays to on a regular basis.
At the end of the song Larry tells the people in the room how much he likes the song, slipping from earnest sentiment, to mischievously hinting at a story we don’t get to hear… “I liked it the first time I heard it, in unusual circumstances”. He often makes a comment at the end of a song. He’s not paying any attention to the microphones but engaging with the people around him in the room instead, it feels superfluous to say how down to earth and humble this man is, but maybe I haven’t got that across yet. The most colourful is his sudden release of belly laughter when he gets to the end of the brooding seven minutes that is ‘Losers Trilogy’, a song he wrote in collaboration with Stuart Wright and Mickey Newbury.
It’s one of two long-form song trilogies, the other being the ten minute ‘Whore Trilogy’ which is the most country of the bunch with Wilson affecting more twang and more light-touch fills. It’s a style I’m not familiar with but one within which Wilson sounds at home. It seems that these are stories that need a little more time and effort invested in them to properly reveal their meaning. Shifts in the flow and the narrative perspective are marked by transitions into new picking patterns and new chords, keeping the listeners interest alive so as to deliver the story in it’s entirety without boring an audience with repetitive chord patterns.
It works very well, though ‘Losers Trilogy’ is by far the better of the two, perhaps the highpoint of the album alongside the beautiful, slow burning country soul of ‘Throw My Hands Up’ and the tender ‘Shoulders’, which his father told him might need to bear the weight of the world sometime, but just aren’t strong enough to carry a loved ones “goodbye tear stains”. ‘Feel Alright Again’ is a light-footed beauty of a tune, carrying lyrics double it’s weight, reminiscent of Dylan’s ‘Buckets of Rain’.
Sure, the whole album adopts a wistful, sentimental repose and has none of the dance-inducing funk of those Monument LP’s, so it can become a bit of a blur. I can do without songs like ‘Me With No You’ and ‘I Am No Dancer’, but even they have some crystal clear observations that make them worth a listen or three. What it does have in spades is words sung by a man who knows their meaning and imparts his understanding via his incredibly expressive voice. There are not many people who could sing the following lines the way he does:
“She won’t leave me when I’m down, how’s she ever going to go? Sometimes I think the only thing to do would be to pass the door of darkness through, and then to try and tell you what I see there”.
It’s a grand collection of songs and well worth your money, but not seam splittingly exciting. I’ve still got my fingers crossed for those re-issues.