SPECTACLE REPORT: Elvis Costello's Must-Hear "Guitar Pull" Tracks
From left, Jesse Winchester, Neko Case, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow and Ron Sexsmith
on SPECTACLE’S “Guitar Pull.”
I’ve known Ron since just after the release of his first record. He’s probably gotten tired of reading my name in a paragraph with his simply because I’m among those who think it extraordinary that at least one of his records isn’t in every household in the land. So, where should you begin if for some reason you don’t already know Ron’s songs? The answer is everywhere. Buy his first record. Buy his next release and then everything in between, if you can afford it. Each collection contains gems that you will be happy to have heard. Here are a couple of songs you shouldn’t miss.
“Child Star” – from Other Songs (1997)
Ron’s elegant, restrained vocal style might make people attach the word “melancholy” to his work, but he has written songs that are both poignant and of a hopeful spirit. There’s also a sharp, unsentimental edge to some of his lyrics that is easily missed in the beauty of his singing. “Child Star” is one of three portraits, or narrative songs, that I could have picked from Ron’s second album. I could easily have chosen “Clown In Broad Daylight” or “Strawberry Blonde,” but I’m going for this wonderful ballad about a tragic show-business life. It’s a song that is worth the weight of a book or film. I remember thinking that Ron could have teased the audience a little more by choosing his most boyish picture and making this song the title track of that album.
“The Words We Never Use” – from Rarities (2000)
No matter how well Ron’s songs are framed on record, I find nothing as persuasive as his solo performance. Therefore I was delighted to hear this unadorned live rendition of one of the many timeless songs from his debut record in a collection called Rarities. This performance puts the spotlight on the easy grace his voice. It shouldn’t surprise anyone Ron is a fan of Bing Crosby, as well as the Brothers Everly and Louvin. The song also contains one extravagant, poetic image, “the willow of your smile,” painting a sad visage with one word. It is the epitome of his austere and admirable use of language.
Another album that is really worth tracking down is Destination Unknown. That’s where Ron and his colleague Don Kerr are co-billed, and give us their take on the vocal harmony duo style. My favorite cut is “Reacquainted.” Finally, I would recommend “Comrade Fill No Glass For Me,” Ron’s beautiful contribution to Beautiful Dreamer, a collection of songs by Stephen Foster, whose melodies are now known to everyone, but who died with 29 cents in his pockets. Fame can ebb and flow, but like Foster, Ron Sexsmith is the best version of Ron Sexsmith available to us, now and forever.
One of the surprises of SPECTACLE is in hearing big hit tunes played in the manner in which they may have sprung to life – as accompanied by one guitar. Sheryl certainly has plenty of those in her bag. However, some of my favorites of hers have come about when her songwriting has taken an unexpected turn, whether by design or, unblinking, through the challenge of fate.
“Superstar” – from Sheryl Crow (1996)
“Make It Go Away (Radiation Song)” – from Detours (2008)
Sheryl is a wonderful harmony singer, so I had the idea that SPECTACLE’s “Guitar Pull” episode would give her numerous opportunities to shine, in both foreground and middle distance. She’s part of a wonderful duet with Willie Nelson on “If I Were A Carpenter,” from Anchored In Love, John Carter Cash’s tribute record to his mother, June Carter. The “original” rendition of this arrangement of Tim Hardin’s song was by June and Johnny Cash. Now, I’ve sung with both Willie and Johnny Cash and I know that with such indelible, vivid vocal stylists any duet partner has two choices: get out of the way or cling on for dear life.
Sheryl rides the harmonic lines, bringing her bright clear tone to whatever turn that Willie takes in the tune. It is like magnetic attraction. Bob Dylan is another vocalist from whom you dare not look away when attempting to harmonize. It is shame that we ran out of time to rehearse a version of “Mississippi” – a Dylan song of which Sheryl made the debut recording – but I enjoyed harmonizing spontaneously with her behind Ron Sexsmith’s beautiful rendition of “Ring Them Bells.”
“Prison Girls” – from Middle Cyclone (2009)
“Margaret Vs Pauline” – from Fox Confessor Brings The Flood (2006)
Another of the bonuses of working on Spectacle is the motivation to dive deeper into an upcoming guest’s catalog. I’d always liked what I’d heard of Neko Case when I had happened upon her singing, but had spent far too little time with any one of her albums. It probably isn’t a requirement that I know every track of every record by our guests, and in some cases that would be impossible, but I do like to get reacquainted even with that music that I think I know well.
One bright moonlit night last summer, I was driving from Telluride to Denver on my way to a 48-hour visit to London. Neko’s records were my companions during that trip, and there is something hallucinatory about listening to music of such lyrical richness and harmonic surprise at every unlikely hour of the day and night.
In the end, I asked Neko if Steve Nieve and I might accompany her on a wonderful song from her recent album, Middle Cyclone. It took us a few rehearsals to find a way to play “Prison Girls” as a trio, and I commend Neko for taking the chance and believing that when the red light went on Steve and I would not fail her. Abandoning the regular cues of an arrangement is sometimes daunting, but this is what our evening of music was all about.
Neko gave us a couple of other great performances, one of which did not make the final cut, but her portrait “Margaret Vs Pauline” is a gem of writing. If we’d had another hour of two, I might have asked her to sing “Twist The Knife” from Furnace Room Lullaby or a number of her songs that seem to have more to do with the soul and mystery of country and don’t require that prefix of “Alt” as any kind of warning or apology – especially when the mainstream is so parched and barren.
Apart from a fleeting handshake and mumbled compliment from a nervous young singer at his London show around 1975, the SPECTACLE taping was my first meeting with Jesse Winchester, a songwriter who I have admired for nearly forty years. I’d even written a liner note for a Best Of Jesse Winchester collection and received a beautiful handwritten letter of thanks, but this was our first real face-to-face meeting. That it should be SPECTACLE’S privilege to introduce Jesse’s voice and songwriting to any new listeners says more for our good fortune than any inequity. Jesse’s path in the musical life has been entirely his own.
“Shama-Ling-Dong-Ding” – from Love Filling Station (2009)
It was startling but not unexpected that the first eight bars of Jesse’s first rehearsal should bring several experienced SPECTACLE production staffers to tears at the elegant beauty of his hushed vocal. The fact that this was achieved with an evocative song of a lover recalling the heartfelt meaning in the apparent nonsense lyrics of a doo-wop tune speaks of the consistent quality of his writing over the years.
“Black Dog” – from Jesse Winchester (1970)
I spent a lot of time alone listening to that first album, wondering how these songs came in existence. On record, they had an edgy, uneasy feeling – some of which came from the guitar playing of producer, Robbie Robertson – but as Jesse illustrated on SPECTACLE, his first songs stand outside of time.
“Black Dog” is a song from that first collection and one which you should not dwell in the dark with for too long. It seems to contain everything about Jesse’s songwriting that I value: a mysterious melody wrapped around the narrative, a novelistic eye for detail, and decent sense of fate, faith or dread at the loss of it.
If I had an hour or two your time, I could recommend such songs as “Isn’t That So,” the gentle “Dangerous Fun,” or Jesse’s re-imaginings of “Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt” and the Everly Brothers’ “Bowling Green,” but it is a fine and welcome compliment that it is another song with which I would introduce his voice to a new listener: “Bless Your Foolish Heart,” from the new Love Filling Station.