Monday, February 12, 2001

Hardcore Bluegrass

f that textured 1989 self doubt novel The Second Time Around was about anything at all it was probably most about the heart being a muscle. Once that organ loses its ability, or doesn't care enough to pump blood, things are gonna come to an end mighty fast.

In the book the main character describes himself as a used up red rubber ball that can no longer bounce back. It's a cliched analogy from a character who is quite fond of movies. Throughout the story he has his heart broken many times at the movies. So if we were to transpose him to current times I'm afraid the poor lad might just go over the edge. Just when you think things are as exactly as they seem, we've seen the unfortunate breakups of Bruce and Demi, Meg and Dennis, Alec and Kim, and now regrettably Nicole and Tom. How much longer can Kurt and Goldie, or Susan and Tim, or Michael and Catherine Zeta last? How about Angelie and Billy Bob? Is there nothing in this world sacred that we can believe in?

If the movies have conveyed to us any important message it is that there are many things in life that just cannot be explained. People do what's most convenient and then they repent. As I was digging myself out from the snow last week I saw a small round black object sitting underneath my house's outside dryer vent. For the life of me in the distance I couldn't figure out what it could possibly be. As I approached it my heart sank- it had to be something that broke free from one of my major appliances. As I picked it up I was relieved to find out it was merely a hockey puck. How it got there and why it was there was puzzling but at least it wasn't bad news of any kind to one who is admittedly a bit gun shy these days. It a reminder that unexpected things can fly at you at any time from any direction and like Christian Slater's character in Untamed Heart you have to be prepared to grab things when you have the one in a million chance.

I was out the other night with my friend Stooey who has recently had his heart broken. I was in the odd position of trying to counsel him as he questioned how long it takes to for things to heal. Earlier that day the temptress had told me that if we were both participants on Survivor she would have no problem voting me off the island because that's the way the game is played. She told me Tina didn't stab Mad Dog in the back because she never made any promises to her. The implied friendship couldn't stand in way of what they were there to do. So the best I could do for Stooey was to tell him to write- because that's what they do in the movies. Maybe sometime in the near future he will be kind enough to let me know if it works.

As I was putting the finishing touches on another issue of the newsletter I turned on my car radio to Garrison Keillor's show and he had bluegrass artist Rhonda Vincent and the Rage on. They were playing their version of what is probably my favorite story song of all time- Dolly Parton's desperately sad Jolene. The song never fails to cause a tear or two to form. The narrator with so little self esteem vociferously begs the disinterested third party to understand the power she holds over her. "You could have your choice of men/But I could never love again/He's the only one for me Jolene/I had to have this talk with you/My happiness depends on you/Whatever you decide to do, Jolene."

I appreciated Vincent's faithful version of the song, but not quite as much as I appreciate Parton's terrific new CD, Little Sparrow. Like last year's The Grass is Blue, this new CD is an attempt by the popular major artist to return to her roots. Little Sparrow is hardcore mountain bluegrass- ever faithful to its musical roots in deference to the more poppy style that made her famous in the first place. There's plenty of fiddle playing, mandolin tinged songs about a simple life and about how difficult it is to open your heart to another who turns their back away.

The opening title cuts sets the theme of the entire 14 song cycle. It's a song about a friendship betrayed. The singer sings her heart out like and to the little sparrow as she expresses her admiration and envy at the bird's ability to freely fly away from its troubles. The songs are full of a singer who is walking the blood thin line of trying not to care, caring too much and wanting to still care as her heart hardens more and more.

Half of the CD's songs are Parton originals that stack together like fine china. There are two rather unusual covers that work well in the mix even though neither one would be an obvious choice to include in a bluegrass set. Sinatra's I Get a Kick Out of You gets a down home treatment while Collective Soul's Shine shares a common theme of many of the songs- turning to a higher force to help map the confusion out.

Little Sparrow is cinematically the best new CD I've come across this year. It is a highly personal statement sung with a comforting and assured voice of one who needs to make this music and obviously enjoys doing so.

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