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March 25, 2011

Book Notes - Jewly Hight ("Right by Her Roots: Americana Women and Their Songs")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Jewly Hight's new book Right by Her Roots: Americana Women and Their Songs profiles eight notable female Americana artists. Hight delves not only into their music but also their inspirations, and offers new perspective into both the the talent and careers of these singer-songwriters.

I was already a fan of all these artists when I started the book, and owned several albums by each, but Right by Her Roots newly framed their art and gave me fresh insight into their music and lives.

American Songwriter wrote of the book:

"This isn't just a book for Americana fans – it's a book for songwriters, music lovers, appreciators of good writing and anyone who's ever felt even the slightest bit compelled to create something bigger than themselves, to reach down to their roots and give the world everything they've got."

In her own words, here is Jewly Hight's Book Notes music playlist for her book, Right by Her Roots: Americana Women and Their Songs:

As you might guess from the subtitle, songs are at the heart of my book. I listened to some 80 albums' worth during the interviewing and writing process; everything released to date by the eight roots-minded singer-songwriters that I put in the book, plus stuff they'd collaborated on with musical partners. I'd take up one songwriter at a time, wade knee-deep into a Lucinda Williams phase, then into a Michelle Shocked one, and so on. What I was listening for was narrative—not just the stories told by individual songs, but the evolving stories of the artists' expression. Since the complete playlist from that process would be about a mile long, I've narrowed it down to a single important song from each of them; one from Williams, one from Shocked and, likewise, one each from Julie Miller, Victoria Williams (no kin of Lucinda's), Mary Gauthier, Ruthie Foster, Elizabeth Cook (two from her, actually) and Abigail Washburn.

Lucinda Williams: "Joy"

Chapter one, the Lucinda Williams chapter, closes with a dissection of this down-home blues-rock number. The song packs a punch not only because she's daring you to doubt she'll get over an ex who did her wrong (and that, she told me, was what she originally meant the song to be about). There's more to it than that; the teeth-gritting defiance that comes through in her lyrics and delivery transcends breakup territory. Williams sounds ready to travel to the four corners of the earth to steal back her joy; it's a vow to live fully and to fully live, even though pain is inevitably going to be part of the deal.

Michelle Shocked: "Good News"

This garage-rocking R&B song showed up a little over a decade into Michelle Shocked's career. Up to that point, she'd never been the least bit bashful about speaking her mind on social and political matters—or about ridiculing religion—but this was different. And unexpected. With the raw, righteous indignation of a Hebrew prophet, she warns the people pouring pollution into a Louisiana swamp that they'll face divine judgment. Shocked was searching for a connection between activism and spirituality when she wrote the song—her urgency is palpable—and it proved to be a pivot point for her music.

Julie Miller: "The Devil Is an Angel"

Even though Julie Miller is past the half-century mark, she has, on occasion, been pegged as childlike or innocent. The reason? Her voice can sound strikingly fragile and her heart especially tender—and tender it is. But in reality, she's also a multifaceted artist and lot more complex than people might assume. Other not-to-be-ignored sides of her show up in songs like this perfectly sly, streetwise country-blues kiss-off to a would-be seducer.

Victoria Williams: "Century Plant"

The century plant isn't a horticultural phenomenon familiar to me outside of this Victoria Williams song, but, then, she's the sort to pick up on plenty of things that other folks miss—plus she lives in the California desert, same as those plants do. They bloom just once in their lives and, as she reminds, you never know when that'll be. The same could be said of the late-blooming human characters in this whimsical roots-rock number. There's a sense of unscripted possibility both to the song and to her free-spirited singing that echoes throughout a good bit of her music.

Mary Gauthier: "Mercy Now"

Mary Gauthier is the type of singer-songwriter who gives a lot of thought to the matter of who she's speaking to and about. And the people who've consistently had her attention are outsiders, dwellers on the margins. She likes to put them center stage. But every dozen songs or so, she comes up with one that's big enough to hold not only the outsiders, but everybody else, too—that's at once tangibly specific and inescapably universal. And this simple, eloquent folk song is among her best. It's a sort of prayer, sung in her toughened drawl and enveloping every sorry soul on earth.

Ruthie Foster: "Mama Said"

In our phone conversations over the span of a couple years, Ruthie Foster had plenty to say about her mother, and it had plenty to do with her music. Her mom was the one who'd overheard her bashfully strumming and murmuring in her bedroom so many years ago and emboldened her to sing like she meant it. And there's an authority—now Foster's own—to the way she raises herself up to attack the high notes, to the lyrics' reprisal of her mother's words and to the slow, swaying groove of this down-home, gospely song.

Elizabeth Cook: "Heroin Addict Sister" and "Yes to Booty"

These songs come one right after the other on Elizabeth Cook's album Welder, but they couldn't be more different from each other in spirit. The first one's intimate—a wrenching, affectionate portrait of a loved one whose self-destructive streak puts a two-ton burden on relationships. The second song is a novelty tune that Cook told me she cranked out in five minutes flat while she was under the gun in the studio. It's a raucous honky-tonk number that calls for less-drunken sex. Not less drinking or less sex—just a reversal of the sequence of events. Sure, one of these takes up heavyweight subject matter and the other is willfully ridiculous, but both of them are frank, detailed and true-to-life, like a lot of country music used to be.

Abigail Washburn: "Dreams of Nectar"

I've seen this song completely silence a bar crowd, Abigail Washburn leaning into the sturdy folk melody a capella, only to be joined a verse later by her musical partner Kai Welch, using an effects pedal to create humming, thrumming, sighing loops beneath her voice. The whole thing's very old-timey and very modern at the same time, a harmonizing of her sensibilities and her collaborator's. And globally attuned as she is, the song also tells the bittersweet story of a Chinese immigrant come to America in search of a new life and dearly missing home.

Jewly Hight and Right by Her Roots: Americana Women and Their Songs links:

the author's website
the author's blog
excerpt from the book

American Songwriter review
Nashville Scene review
Tiny Cat Pants review

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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