Thursday, June 25, 2009


I feel like it’s been so long since I’ve written anything*, that I have to just jot some things down. And I will. But meanwhile, an appreciation of a Lucinda Williams song—“Greenville”, from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Here are the lyrics, so you can refer back to them:

Don't wanna see you again or hold your hand
Cause you don't really love me you're not my man
You're not my man oh you're not my man
Go back to Greenville just go on back to Greenville
You scream and shout and you make a scene
When you open your mouth you never say what you mean
Say what you mean oh say what you mean
Go back to Greenville just go on back to Greenville
You drink hard liquor you come on strong

You lose your temper someone looks at you wrong
Looks at you wrong oh looks at you wrong
Go back to Greenville just go on back to Greenville
Out all night playin in a band

Looking for a fight with a guitar in your hand
A guitar in your hand oh a guitar in your hand
Go back to Greenville just go on back to Greenville
Empty bottles and broken glass

Busted down doors and borrowed cash
Borrowed cash oh the borrowed cash
Go back to Greenville just go on back to Greenville
Looking for someone to save you
Looking for someone to rave about you
To rave about you oh to rave about you
Go back to Greenville just go on back to Greenville

The album, a Grammy-winner, is superb, but I really love this song. Sometimes it just floats into my mind and I find myself humming it. When that happens, most of the time and in spite of my better judgment, I ask why. This is what I come up with as an answer.

I really like country music a lot of the time. I like acoustic guitar based songs with prominent vocals. But more importantly, country music songs are mostly stories, 3 – 4 minutes of lives you can sketch from the dramatic moment the artist is painting in music. It’s like walking past a house and seeing into the window. Or, even more, like this Chris Van Allsburg book I love called “The Mysteries of Harris Burdick", in which Van Allsburg creates a character who has left a single drawing from several books he has written and disappears. The reader is left with drawings having a single caption, and each one sets the mind racing. For instance, there is a nun floating on a chair in a cathedral and the caption is “The Seven Chairs: The fifth one ended up in France.” The mind starts racing and makes up a story immediately. A good song is like that. I don’t know what came before or what comes after, but the song puts me in a moment where I want to conjecture a story.

Right now, I keep listening to a song by Miranda Lambert on my iPod called “More Like Her” in which a woman is singing to a man who left her to ostensibly go back to his wife. Sometimes, I even switch the gender in my head and wonder what the relationships would be if maybe it was a man who had an affair with a man and then went back to his wife (it happens, kids). Or how they met, what their backgrounds are, who the wife is, etc. It’s like the Harris Burdick picture but with an emotion—you’re given a grain of a story, a relationship that comes into focus for a crystal second before it diffuses again.

What’s interesting to me about Lucinda Williams, whose music I love and whose songwriting I regard highly, is how deceptively simple her music is. She’s definitely revelation through repetition, simple haunting melodies, but with concise, haunting poetry and performance to match. It’s these things which intersect beautifully for me in Greenville. The melody is a repetition, and she does what she does brilliantly, namely write a song without a bridge. Who needs a bridge when the emotion is so strong and pure? Not that a bridge is an outmoded convention—it’s a breath of fresh air and generally an emotional shift in a song. But it’s the driving of the emotion, the almost droning, incantatory quality that gives it it’s power. The words are simple, and they repeat. Like I said, looking at it from the outside, it seems like it might be even dull.

But here’s the secret weapon—her performance. Listening to Lucinda to me is captivating because of what she invests. Like a good poem, you feel that she’s struggled to give each word its value, and to choose just the right word at the right time. It’s her performance that gives it its luster. I was listening to the song this morning, and what struck me was how she colored each repetition, sometimes in seeming opposition to what she’s singing. In the first line, when she repeats “you’re not my man”, we can feel first her anger and then her sadness, and when she repeats “Say what you mean”, it goes from being an admonition to an exhortation, a plea to come clean. Repeating “guitar in your hand” goes from the ridiculousness of fighting with the guitar in hand, to just how sexy holding the guitar is, and you feel the attraction that was there before she got to the point of telling him to leave, and that she’s even still wants him while telling him to go. “Oh the borrowed cash” is almost funny, and sad, with the admission of how ridiculous it seems, while the last “to rave about you” just begins to feel like pity. Though it seems like a simple phrase--Go back to Greenville--possibly overheard in a bar or on the street, she infuses it with all the resolve and misgivings of any break-up. This could be a real request, or something that a woman tells her boyfriend or husband every night after they've had too much to drink and she starts to get maudlin.

So in a song with no bridge, a straightforward blues sounding almost-folk song, she’s moved from anger to sadness, pleading, indecision, attraction, futility and finally pity. That’s quite a range in 4 minutes. And, when I'm feeling meta, I think that she could even be singing to herself--who knows? So much possibility. And that’s what keeps me coming back: it’s quite a play, isn’t it?

* though I do have to put in a plug that I’m actually reading a piece that I wrote at a theater here. I submitted, they accepted, and it’s a first. So I am writing some. Just not as much as I’d want, since I have, like, a job.