Memphis-based artist and songwriter Amy LaVere did something rare and special on the occasion of her latest album release this spring. Instead of hiring a hack like me to interpret her thoughts and artistic process in what the industry misleadingly calls a “bio,” she wrote a candid first-person account that fits the definition of a more elevated medium – the liner note.
LaVere, who makes her MCR debut on this week’s show, has been a bewitching mystery for years, at least to me. She writes and sings about dangerous and damaged characters, some of whom may or may not be herself. She plays the upright bass with muscle and precision, and she sings with silky, spooky intimacy, like Blossom Dearie with a switchblade. She can seem like a character in a gothic Cohen Brothers movie. And then you learn that she’s acted in films including Walk The Line and Black Snake Moan. So mystique is strong with this one, but fortunately she cuts through and fills in some blanks with her personal remarks:
“I moved away from home for good at 17. I briefly quit school, later finishing at night school while working at various restaurants. I saved my money and moved to L.A., but I couldn’t find a job – 17 days later I asked my mom to wire me some money to get back to Michigan. I left again at 19 and moved to Louisiana, then Nashville, Ocean City and Orlando. I eventually made it to Memphis, which I now call home – but I tour more than I’m there, and it satisfies my nature.”
If the songs on Runaway’s Diary are any indication, that nature could be described as restless. LaVere’s first foray away from home, according to her story, came when she and a friend lit out for Chicago from Detroit by bus. Memories of those emotions and (thankfully mild) adventures fuel the songwriting on Diary. It’s not a concept album so much as a memoir with poetic license, so it has a thematic and emotional coherence. I love “Self Made Orphan” with its late 50s rumba beat and its introspection. “I find happiness in things blowing around,” she sings. Then there’s “Snowflake,” with its lonesome piano and vivid pictures of her early wanderlust. And she covers “Dark Moon,” a lost Southern pop gem from the catalogs of Gale Storm, Bonnie Guitar and Elvis.
Amy LaVere and Nashville are well acquainted. She got her bass playing chops together while working Lower Broadway during the 1990s revival of downtown Music City. But it seems like Memphis is where she belongs. The late great Jim Dickinson became a huge fan and supporter, producing the album that got a lot of us hooked. When LaVere sings in the opening song of that Anchors & Anvils album that “killing him didn’t make the love go away,” it’s hard not to stop whatever you’re doing and listen for the arc of the story. I’ll be listening that intently to her set on Wednesday and I’m certainly looking forward to a good interview.
Mike Farris, long-time friend of Roots, returns for an early sizing up of our new Liberty Hall venue. He’s had his share of restlessness too, though it seems pretty much behind him. For those who don’t know, Mike was a Nashville rock and roll hero, fronting the Screaming Cheetah Wheelies during the second half of the 1990s. The Southern boogie band got a major label deal and toured widely, and Mr. Mike, while he sang like a nuclear weapon, battled substance abuse for years. His ultimate recovery synched with his deep dive into the language of Southern gospel music. And he proved a natural with something striking to add to the venerable genre. As I reported for WPLN in 2008, his eye-popping Salvation In Lights album helped bring the sound of the rocking church house into the Americana fold.
We’ve featured Mike as often as any artist we know, because he’s such a consistent soul-stirrer. He’ll bring his Roseland Rhythm Review along, plus songs from a an album we’re expecting shortly from his new relationship with Compass Records. That’s good things happening to good music folk, and I’m looking forward to catching up with Mike.
Two more newcomers will round out our show. I was turned on to Rachael Davis about a year ago, to find that she was already widely admired by some great artists. For example the excellent Susan Werner, a great friend of the show who’s playing Roots on Aug. 6, compares her to the late great Eva Cassidy. The press loves her too, calling her “fearlessly eclectic” and her voice “shimmering and versatile.” After getting established in the competitive Boston folk scene, Davis is in Nashville now carving out a unique niche. Her current record is Antebellum Queens, and it’s a great Sunday morning listen, full of ease and grace. This will be my first time seeing Rachael live.
Same for me and Nicole Atkins, though she’s a pretty dang big deal, with a brand new song premiere on NPR, a date this year on World Café and a bunch of adoring followers. I hear comparisons in her music to Neko Case and Shelby Lynne. Her press material frames her newest, and third album Slow Phaser as reaching for “a compelling new sonic approach, melding psychedelic energy, prog rock adventurism, after hours disco ambience, and the raw emotional purity of the finest country soul.”
That sounds like enough to satisfy the most restless among us.