Forget, for a moment, the differences: that Kathleen Edwards is half the age of Lucinda Williams. That she’s from Canada and not the South and sings about hockey and hanging out and breaking up, not snake handling and pining over cosmic losers and her old Mississippi home. And forget, for a moment, Edwards’s other influences either stated or unstated. And let’s just say Kathleen Edwards sounds a lot like Lucinda Williams. Let’s even say she sounds exactly like Lucinda Williams. So what?
Besides the fact that sounding unique has never been a requirement for pop music, especially rootsy rock, there are moments when imitation enlarges both the imitator and the imitatee. Three questions: Why did folksy guys start sounding like Bob Dylan while folksy gals continued to sound like Joan Baez? Why was the young Bob Dylan so mean to the young Donovan in Don’t Look Back? And why did Janis Joplin beget Robert Plant, Axl Rose, and their progeny but no women?
OK, maybe Dylan was imitating Woody Guthrie imitating Dave Van Ronk, but a certain informal, raspy, laconic, at times intimate vocal style emerged in the early 1960s that could project wisdom, humor, unpretentious eroticism and outrage among folk men. While folk women maintained the Baez-Collins approach, not without its merits—but incapable of projecting humor and that crucial aw-shucks poise. Folk women write funny songs, and a lot of them, including Baez, sling some amusing between-song patter, but for the most part their voices sound serious and beautiful. And only serious and beautiful. Sure there are the blues shouters, rock screamers, country revivalists, and new-wave songsters. (And the funny but pretty- sounding McGarrigles.) But where are the female Dylans?
They didn’t exist until Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. The attitude may have been there; the subject matter may have been there. But listening to Kathleen Edwards’s Failer made me feel the really big accomplishment of Car Wheels was that Williams finally nailed down the vocal equivalent of Dylan for women. It’s a sound to match her mix of everyday details and big themes, a sort of self-aware, nearly literary specificity linked to an informal sexiness that short-circuits the potential for pretension. Maybe she had to tinker three decades to get it right, and Edwards was able to pick it up right away. Or maybe, suddenly, it’s just in the air. Either way, it’s a great aesthetic discovery that signals—what? That rootsy, rockin’, folky women don’t have to be only beautiful or angry? A certain self-acceptance? A kind of erotic independence? The cultural conclusion of Janis Joplin as a dangerous but doable path for men but a tragic dead-end for women? Only time, and more music, will tell.
I used to think the young Bob Dylan was mean to the young Donovan because he thought Donovan was a pathetic imitator. But go back and listen. Donovan was a really wonderful imitator, who took off in directions Dylan never went or was able to go in. Listening to Lucinda and Kathleen made me rethink that old confrontation and conclude that Bob was nasty because Donovan was so good it made Bob realize his invention was beyond his control. Maybe he even had a premonition about the Wallflowers.
Of course, Kathleen Edwards doesn’t really sound exactly like Lucinda Williams, even if on certain songs I can’t tell them apart. Williams has a larger self and a bigger repertoire of voices that she stretches even further on her new CD, World Without Tears, reaching from talking blues to plainspoken Blonde on Blonde caterwauling. I give her an A for conception and a C for execution. Her previous Essence was a distillation of Car Wheels, but that simplification still had its surprising observations or turns of phrase. This time Lucinda loosens and sometimes loses her grip on those regional Tom T. Hall details or oddball biblical-allegorical phrases that give her idiom its authenticity. Left unprotected, couplets start sounding like clichés, rather than just-folks observations. Could signal subject matter fatigue—there are only so many good songs about addict-lovers; ask Ani DiFranco. But I’m betting it’s just a temporary readjustment, as Lucinda learns she can expand her emotional terrain to California but should leave Minnesota alone. (Stay away from cold climates?)
Farther from the blues, both white and black, Kathleen reinvents the melodic, hook-filled past of folk-rock, rather than Lucinda’s folk past mixed with Faulkner. Booked early in her career by both Letterman and Leno, old coots like me, it’s possible 24-year-old Edwards too successfully recollects the baby boomers’ adolescence and will be of only minor interest to people her own age. But these days I have to wonder if anything from Canada—a rich North American country with good roads and free health care that doesn’t do invasions—is more an improvement than an imitation. Maybe we are witnessing the creation of a mythological Canadian past: the ’60s of Trudeau, old weird America with snow. Live in January at the Village Underground and Joe’s Pub she was cocky, funny, and a bit freaked out from all the attention. The persona exhibited in her between-song patter matched that in her singing, and she and the band didn’t play a single boring note—all of which suggest longevity. Let’s hope she can hold on for the long haul. As long as Lucinda Williams. Even longer than Donovan.