She’s the best. For the last couple years there hasn’t been any pop musician who meant as much to me as her.
Why this is so is not self-evident. Her performance is striking for a lot of negative qualities. She isn’t glamorous. She isn’t even especially charismatic. Her singing is often weak. She doesn’t flatter the audience, or flirt with it. The show is not polished. Last night, she had instructions for the crew after each song. Worst of all, she constantly referred to a book of lyrics open on a music stand by her side. I know this is her procedure, but last night it really seemed to disrupt communication sometimes.
But all that is just external. In fact the show was very artfully composed. She began solo, doing a few songs accompanied by herself on guitar. Then Blake Mills came out and joined her for a few more songs. Then, one by one, the other members of her band joined in—the steel guitar, the bass, the drummer. So the evening was a steady, deliberate, continuous crescendo and accelerando, from a quietly reflective “Lake Charles” to a raucous “Get Right with God.”
And anyway her shows stand on the foundation of her songs, which are incomparable. The lyrics, about which she is so anxious, are actually worth being anxious about.
She combines the folky sweetness and propulsion of country rock in the Gram Parsons tradition with stingingly precise images:
The company couch covered in plastic
Little books about being saved
The dining room table nobody ate at
And the piano nobody played.
This kind of densely resonant plainness is the opposite of natural language—it’s the result of a lot of hard work and conscious art.
Front and center is the strain of country music from Hank Williams through George Jones, Tammy Wynett, and Loretta Lynn—especially it’s knack of giving dark feelings their full weight without breaking down into utter gloom.
And her literary side has less to do with Southern Gothic than with the more astringent modern poets like Robert Creeley (“Oh come home soon, I write to her. / Go fuck yourself, is her answer.”) and Stevie Smith (“The wood grows darker every day / It’s not a bad place in a way / But I lost the way / Last Tuesday.”)
She played lots of my favorites: besides “Back to Baton Rouge,” she did animated versions of “Ventura,” “Jackson,” and the great “list” songs “Changed the Locks” and “World Without Tears.’ She did an especially rowdy version of “Can’t Let Go” in which she repeated over and over “Well it's over I know it but I can't let go,” at once describing and demonstrating one of the song’s themes.
The revelations of the evening were “Concrete and Barbed Wire” and “Fruits of My Labor,” which until last night I had never realized were so powerful.
It was quite a different crowd from the El Rey show a few years ago. I got the impression a lot of university types were there to see what Miller Williams’s daughter is up to. From our party came reports of a gentleman distinctly chortling over the saltier lyrics, and a woman commenting mid-show to her companion, “I don’t think she’s going to sing any happy songs!”