In 1972, a singer named Mary McCaslin flushed Hollywood and headed into a West she’d seen only from airplanes. A damn folkie in the Age of Dick (Nixon) and Quaaludes, she carried a notebook, a guitar, hard-won studio expertise, and a hard-fed appetite for something more. McCaslin soon scored a (reformed) outlaw hubby, Jim Ringer. Together they assembled The Bramble and the Rose, recently reissued on Rounder/Philo.
This album contains: death and dreaming, angel dust and Christmas, seeds ‘n’ needs. Traditional and Contemporary Songs of the American People, simple and subtle as you please. Something in the songs and/or the singers tries to keep its distance. But like death and dreaming, like life, the music they make passes through everything; one damn thing leads to another. And of course, it all started with a woman, pulling her hat down over one eye.
The first time I laid eyes on another Hellywood Kid, Maria McKee, fronting her “cowpunk” band Lone Justice (a name that makes the same kind of sense as Blazing Saddles), I saw her as an ancestor/descendant of Bette Midler and Stevie Nicks: a Gold Dust Woman, (re-)born to raise the stakes and stage in Silver City (prospectors shooting down chandeliers in appreciation). (Bette Midler? Western as Hawaii, as in “Who you think brought-um steel guitars, Paleface?” Also Jewish like Annie Oakley a/k/a Phoebe Moses.)
Maria’s new Ultimate Collection (Hip-O) spins a great yarn, but leaves out her self-written, unreleased “To Deserve You” (credibly covered by Midler, on Bette of Roses). Here, a young girl avidly peers out the window at women whose otherworldly beauty and grace come from their virtue. She wants to “shine in your eye like a jewel,” to be as good as, well, gold. This song clarifies Maria’s sometimes distractingly refracted raised-religious-in-Tinseltown sensibility. She was onstage at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go with her big brother Bryan McLean, ex-member of punk-psych pioneers Love (also a Christian-speculative songpoet), when she was only three. And “Soup, Soap, and Salvation” depicts the wee McKee as pounding a tambourine (and even the Sunset Strip?!), with her reportedly ex-beatnik/born-again parents, belting Gospel to the glitz-blitzed.
But Bryan also turned her on to Broadway, and her teen dreams included studying with Sondheim at Juilliard. Widely regarded in her hometown as a proto-alt-country sellout, then as a Corporate Rock wash-out, she wrote (and released) “Panic Beach” (included on Collection): She finds herself spending another day by the bee-yootiful sea, taking her place in the sideshow of invisible friends, eternal Hollywood Hopefuls, utterly ignored. It’s like being trapped inside the ever growing mural of “The Burning of Los Angeles” in Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. But all in her mind—which is finally obligingly noticed—and then swallowed, by the depths of the now alarmingly reverberating stereo sky.
However, once in said sky, she learns to ride the whirlwind she hath reaped, playing guitar like Mick Ronson and swinging by the star once called Ziggy, into her personal-space odysseys (freshly cherry-picked from her 1996 breakthrough Life Is Sweet). She even whistles like in “Golden Years,” but spookier, a coded refrain, on “If Love Is a Red Dress (Hang Me in Rags)”—from the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, appropriately enough. She’s one of those Western Women, like Belle Starr and Calamity Jane, Billy Tipton and Brandon Teena, forever having to migrate through dime novels and disappearances, trespasses and transports. Straying is the tradition—that Satellite o’ Love always needs more lasso.
Further West, Cyndi Boste has been called “the Lucinda Williams of Australia.” And both artists do bear down, on what could otherwise easily remain mere backwatery blues-mindedness. But Car Wheels on a Gravel Road usually works best when Lucinda looks up from her road maps, and lets the music unwind, even snake around some. On Home Truths (Warrior) Cyndi keeps playing her cards (hungry textures, tiny solos, rationed hooks) close to the vest, but her game’s always gaining momentum. Meanwhile, she’s gathering scattered impressions, impulses, hoarding insights and courage.
Then she cuts out, through the day’s apparently endless scrutiny of things-as-they-are, into the desert night, where “new” things start to move around differently—she wanted it, she’s got it. No time left, even after “Daddy Comes Home,” for the world to end, or begin. The deep rich voice intensifies its clipped delivery of key phrases. These click on by, like slide shows, empty chambers, telephone poles. Hello Operator, she’s making a lonnnggg distance call.
Back in the U.S.A., two girls, sisters, stand at the sink, doing the dishes, relentlessly critiquing their encounters with guys, maybe even The Guy, when all’s (ever?) said and done. Meanwhile, outside the kitchen window, Guy Life, High Life (the blue sonic boom ‘n’ slide of air patrols, stunt pilots, crop dusters), goes on all around them. Oh, sometimes they get taken for rides—in more ways than one! “I’m not Sally,” they have to point out. True: They’re Stacy and Rhonda Hill. But I’m Not Sally is the name of their band. They own this whole yipee-yi-sky show, lock stock ‘n’ Guy-wire. Neat. Recorded in David (Camper/Cracker) Lowery’s studio and involving, for instance, known pedal steelist Eric Heywood (who also plays with deadpan darlin’s Freakwater); still, I’ve never heard anything quite like their Jewels and Fools (Big Prank). Alt-country cowpokes come a-courtin’, inspired by “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” rather than the Byrd-bleached “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”? Giddyup!
Cyndi Boste’s Home Truths and I’m Not Sally’s Jewels and Fools can be ordered from milesofmusic.com.