Last week I got on the phone with Jessica Lea Mayfield. Her two Dan Auerbach-produced albums have their share of sharp-tongued songs that draw on pre-‘90s country and moody ‘90s grunge. Tell Me is the latest one. The way that she coolly, unaffectedly calls guys out on their false-hearted attempts at seduction is pretty striking. But her background, and her relationship to it, can also really throw people. She grew up traveling around in a modified old tour bus with her family’s band, singing bluegrass and gospel. In other words, earnest music. Even though she’s chosen a completely different way of expressing herself—one that isn’t particularly earnest—she still shows great affection for the music of her upbringing. She’s always mentioning bluegrass-gospel giant Doyle Lawson in interviews, and even used his name for her cat and for a tattoo. And who’s to say she can’t have it both ways?
Well, hell, the book’s only been out three days, and I’m already finding artists who’d be stellar candidates for a part two. Lizz Wright is one of them. I interviewed her for an unrelated feature article, but the RBHR threads in our conversation were unmistakable. Born into the United Holiness Church with a minister father, she grew up in small-town Georgia singing gospel, and only gospel. And yet, over the course of several albums she’s come to be known as a singer and songwriter of sophisticated yet rootsy blues, soul and jazz with decidedly nonsectarian—what I’d call open-armed—spiritual sensibilities. Then, last year she made her very first, and very fine, gospel album called Fellowship; it’s her version of gospel, blending her strong church roots with the everywhere-but-church spirituality of Hendrix, Clapton, Meshell Ndegeocello, and even Gladys Knight and the Pips. Wright saw the album as a way to let her family know that even though she’s come to look at the world differently than them, she gets what’s so valuable about the musical-spiritual heritage they share. You could say she needed some space to flesh out her own thing before she could go back there on her terms.
It’s a happy coincidence that Blessed, the new album by Lucinda Williams, is out today, the very same day as my book, Right By Her Roots. I mean, the entire first chapter of the thing is devoted to Williams (and each chapter after to a different songwriter). Blessed wasn’t done in time for me to work it in, but I did get the chance to talk with her about the new music back in December, and a lot of that conversation made it into a feature in the new issue of American Songwriter. http://www.americansongwriter.com/current-issue/
When I got the album advance in the mail, popped it in the player and started listening, I remembered something I really dig about her writing. She’s been pegged as dark plenty over the years. But it’s not necessarily that Williams’ music is dark—it’s that she dances on a life-and-death ledge; writes about it, tries to pull others back from throwing themselves over the edge of it and, sometimes, needs others to pull her back.
More than once, she’s told me a saying of her dad’s on the subject: “My dad used to describe it as there’s a deep, dark well, and we’re all standing on the edge of the well looking in. Everybody’s standing there. He said, ‘Some people jump in and some people don’t. Therein lies the difference.’ That’s pretty much the way I look at life.”
There’s a pair of slow-burning soul numbers on Blessed that bring this push-and-pull to life. One is “To Be Loved”, Williams’ reminder to a soul out on the ledge that she or he was, as the title says, born to be loved, not wounded. Then there’s “Convince Me”. That’s Williams plea to be reminded of the same thing herself. “Even when I’m trying to convince other people,” she told me, “I need to be convinced.”
And what could be more human than that?