Roots on the Rails review: Secular hymns, backroads ballads and blues

Cavalcade of American roots music veterans bring music that speaks to tough times outside the concert halls

Story by MITCH RITTER
Photos by DEENA WOLFE-GUERIN

When it’s time to declare that this whole world’s in a bad condition and it may be time to make a move, when the Hooverville Homeless Tent Camp has been rousted from Po’town’s Springwater Corridor even though the shelters are all full up but the Mayor can’t extend his summer waiver any longer than Labor Day, even though the Homeless Emergencies declared coast to coast keep adding cities including the Empire City…. In such times, even those lucky enough to have jobs are looking at another staycation and tend to be damned grateful enough to have a roof for another season or month.

Cindy Cashdollar, Christy McWilson & Dave Alvin performed at a Roots on the Rails show in Portland.

Cindy Cashdollar, Christy McWilson & Dave Alvin performed at a Roots on the Rails show in Portland.

Enter the Roots on the Rails revue with a capacity crowd congregated at Portland’s recently restored Old Church. For the last few years, these customized passenger train tours across the far expanses of North America via a steam-punk caboose hitched to the back of an Amtrak or via Rail Canada train have allowed an ever-shifting cast of Americana oriented performers, fans with the time and funds to travel, like-minded musicians and music lovers to travel together for stretches or just to the next town with a gig booked.

The Revue was led this time around by the Alvin brothers from Downey, California: the Reagan-Bush “Morning In America”-era founders of L.A.’s The Blasters. After the original band split, older brother and voice of the ancient eternal blues howlers, Phil Alvin, exited the music business to teach college math for a few years, then toured with a reconstituted Blasters while lead guitarist and songwriter Dave Alvin did some fin de siècle moonlighting in L.A.’s other seminal punk era band X, their acoustic off-shoot the Knitters and his own bands. Since Phil recovered from life-threatening illness a few years ago, he’s occasionally returned to stages with baby brother Dave Alvin’s solo shows and various collaborations with bands such as the Guilty Women, the Guilty Ones and the Kings of California.

Gilkyson & Shea.

Gilkyson & Shea.

Opening the musical bounty was fellow Inland Empire picker and troubadour Rick Shea, author of solo and band projects such as the well-received Sweet Bernardine album of melancholy melodies and pushed-past-resilience profiles of long-settled characters barely tethered to the hardscrabble streets, jukes and de-valued oil and gas fields of San Bernardino. The soft-spoken Shea held the stage for a Jimmie Rodgers- and Doc Watson-inspired original aptly titled for such a barnstorming revue “Step Right In.” A mournful yodel it was, one of a few to also recall the passing of Kern County’s (and later in his career Mount Shasta’s) gift to Honky Tonk history Merle “The Hag” Haggard, whose own touring band The Strangers swung like jazzers and always kept the songs real and way too centered for the Nashville-based Country & Western music marketing niche.

Secular Hymns

Austin, Texas-based Eliza Gilkyson strolled out with her guitar and was accompanied by tasteful session picker Shea on a number of her ruminative original songs and a few choice bits of folk-lore she passed along with a’muse’ing koans of fatherly wisdom gleaned from growing up the daughter of early Folk Scare songwriter Terry Gilkyson, one of whose many circa 1960’s radio hits, “Green Fields,” was widely covered by a range of artists in various genres and continues to speak to new generations and eco-movements through Eliza Gilkyson’s river-of-time harmonic embellishments as well as her engaged activism. “Green Fields“ lush melody and multi-leveled lyric were none the less impressive soaring through the Old Church’s farthest reaches.

Gilkyson confided that The Nocturne Diaries, her recent Red House Records CD produced by her son, the Austin-based worldly percussionist Cisco Ryder, resulted from many years of continuing bouts of insomnia that feel less like a byproduct of any kind of reported national economic recovery and more like an intuitive awareness of our ever worsening world of woe. As an engaged songwriter who occasionally teaches the craft at workshops in Taos, Gilkyson brought some tonic levity if not relief, recounting her advice to her students about being kept awake all night with fragments of song ideas.

“Do not try and go back to sleep,” she counsels her students. She emphatically recommends wrestling those new song fragments even if you have to stay up all night! “If you don’t finish a draft of that song that came to you late at night, you know what happens to it, doncha?” she warns sagely. “That’s right,” wait for it…”each one of those unfinished inspired songs defaults to Dylan!” Ba-ding…The Old Church erupted anew.

Eliza Gilkyson.

Eliza Gilkyson.

Gilkyson’s short and intimate set ended with a new composition from a forthcoming project she is leaning towards titling Secular Hymns (No Deities Allowed). Timing, context and venue being everything, in this case the oldest church in Po’town now restored to impressive acoustic glory, dodged the End Times Zeitgeist that the conscientious bard was trying to avoid by providing a perfect space for communion with whatever it is that wells up within us all, even during times such social stress, wars and displacement. For those with some conception of a Deity such expressions used to be called psalms. They’ve also been known to provide comfort.

Terlinguist Troubador

There could be no better segue to the next fellow Texan Zen troubadour to grace the stage, one of the original Flatlanders of Lubbock, before his move to Austin and then nesting period as Big Bend National Park river rafting guide and sage of the little town on the Texas-Mexico border, Terlingua, Butch Hancock. When Hancock is out playing solo dates or joining these Roots On The Rails Revue tours, his backlog of unrecorded and as yet not even covered cosmos-twisters start circulating through the mytho-poetics of song-chasers the world over and threaded through cyber discourse that Hancock keeps his distance from. Real Butch Hancock song-lovers have for decades acted much like Lil Liza Jane pestering her Dad to explain the symbolism or mysticism in his songs. Like the level Ms. Gilkyson, Hancock has more than a bit of Merry Prankster mixed in with his genuinely keen sense of wonder and abiding curiosity. As kindred songwriter Iris DeMent put it in titling one of her better known songs, it’s often best to just “Let the Mystery Be.”

Seamlessly segueing from Eliza Gilkyson’s “Midnight Oil” bouts of insomnia and troubled sleep attributed to the troubled world while unveiling one of her own in-process Secular Hymns, characterized in her Deity-less psalms where the gratitude for being alive overwhelms even the agnostic caution, too reverent and genuinely awed by the mysteries of existence to try and pin some reductive face on a boundless source of creation, Hancock lit into one of his as-yet-unrecorded offerings. Both Gilkyson and Hancock seemed to be sharing the stage with some unseen Angel, in Old Testament or Mytho-Poetic Western parlance a “Messenger of God.” Biblical Jacob’s all-night wrestling match with the unnamed Angel that slinks away with the first morning sunburst, having wrecked Jacob’s dream while injuring the wayward seeker’s hip and leaving him with a limp and the name Israel, could well serve as a semiotic concordance for Hancock’s set opener “Dangling Diamond.”

The narrative velocity of the opening verses is actually sustained through a whole megillah scrolling cinematically and viscerally through the linked first-person parables. Here’s a lede for all cub reporters or would-be songwriter\poets along with anyone else not sure where to direct one’s prayerful impulses. Questions to help the questor being visited by some nocturnal nameless messenger pertaining to the mysteries of life as they chimed out from Hancock’s steel-string chords and Flatlander whining wind-swept plains tune:

“Thought I had a fix on religion
Until I found this trail of truth
Hangin’ like a danglin’ diamond deep in my heart
I can hear my Mama holler from the kitchen
“Get up, wash yer face and go to school
“You might make something of yourself someday
If you ever find the place to start”

A few similarly plain-spoken, deadpan á la Coen brothers mystical verses later in the narrator’s oral odyssey:

I came home from a schoolyard fight
And I didn’t even know who with

It’s true I had not a clue
What the fight was for
All I remember it was my first fight
And it was her fourth or fifth
In the jaws of the laws of cause and effect
Ya gotta give it all ya got and then some more

Bridge:

I was born in the middle of an endless battle
Every day these fights erupt
Why oh why when the enemy’s gone
Must you go and make another one up?
I was born in the middle of a no-man’s land
Pumping blood and breathing air
Dreaming my name was flying high
Thinking I was going somewhere
Birth and Death
Old age and youth
What is time?
What is truth?

On a honky tonkier note, Hancock brought another number he’d not yet recorded alone or with the Flatlanders but that had been scooped up by simpatico Diesel-billy pioneer Bill Kirchen and was now out anchoring Kirchen’s newest CD release TransAtlanticana with his Twang-bangers and Austin DeLone. It’s a raucous ode named for the painter’s color “Oxblood.”

Butch Hancock.

Butch Hancock.

One audience member called out questions early about an especially mysterious existential verse of an as-yet-unrecorded tune making the rounds in various forms. Closer to intermission and the audience’s visit to the bar and CD sales tables prompted former Austin neighbor and lap-slide guitarist of choice for the likes of the Alvin Brothers’ sometimes collaborators The Guilty Women or The Guilty Ones (or Bob Dylan…), Cindy Cashdollar to look up from her carbon-fibred steel guitar played with arcing slide on her lap as she got to bestow upon Hancock a unique honorific as the world’s foremost Terlinguist.

The Terlinguist was joined onstage by the Alvin Brothers’ slide guitarist of choice Cashdollar and along with Bakersfield picker Rick Shea further illustrated why the King of Diesel-billy Kirchen introduced this song on a trial-run at a Virginia bar gig a couple of years back caught on YouTube this way: “Enough of these pretty songs. You didn’t come here to hear pretty songs. You came to hear slack-jawed, ham-fisted rock and roll. I know you. This is a debut of a song written by one of my favorite songwriters, Butch Hancock of the Flatlanders and it’s never been sung north of Dallas before tonight!”

2015-16 has been a wipe-out year and a half for formative songwriters and influential musicians of note across genres. One such formative influence on Hancock and most everybody in attendance was Guy Clark, the Outlaw Craftsman of song who was invoked the moment his disciple hit the dimly lit stage. Trying to unlock the mysteries of tuning his hard-traveling guitar by ear without the aid of electronic auto-tuner, Hancock asked for the house-lights to be brought up as he sought out the problematic pegs and recalled his fellow West Texan native’s advice. Clark, the author of “Desperados Waiting for A Train” was also a renowned luthier, who, perhaps at a Kerrville Folk-fest campfire suggested: “Find the string that’s outta tune and then tune all the other strings to it.”

The first half of the chock full of Roots on The Rails Revue ended with Eliza Gilkyson joining the otherworldly lap slide steel licks and harmonies of Cindy Cashdollar and Rick Shea’s lean-in delicacy on a Hancock-penned (and Flatlanders and Joe Ely and Emmylou Harris recorded) classic “If You Were A Bluebird.”

As though not to mimic Portlandia’s “slap a bird on it” running gag riff by playing such a swoony romantic hot summer’s night serenade, the revue members didn’t exit the stage for intermission and refreshments along with mingling amongst ourselves until they’d also backed Butch Hancock’s title song from his Y2K self-issued Rainlight Records solo CD You Coulda Walked Around the World. The narrative is so unrestrained Butch Hancock-ian stoner loopy as to be in song an experimental prelude to 2001’s Richard Linklater-created slacker cinematic experiment (in Rotoscope no less!) Waking Life. Hancock seemed to be channeling the late vaudeville comedic icon Stan Laurel by posing for the album’s back cover portrait in one of Laurel’s bowler hats in Thinker’s pose between statues of Stan Laurel and Socrates. The Greek Epic Quest and Vaudeville schlemiel iconography was after WW II appropriated by absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett who copped to the Laurel & Hardy existential inspiration for works where the epic quest or Odyssean heroism gets the Waiting For Godot treatment!

Dave Alvin.

Dave Alvin.

Backroad Blues

After intermission Dave Alvin emerged accompanied by the string section of Cindy Cashdollar on heavenly aero-dynamically sound steel slide guitar (or was it carbon fiber?) and fellow So Cal Inland Empire blues and roots bard Rick Shea. By now it is clear how compelling a gritty bluesy voice Dave Alvin brings when giving voice to his dust-blown characters. He’s also got a deadpan delivery of self-deprecating road lore that brings his croakier tones to the fore. Many of Dave Alvin’s well-loved songs such as “Abilene,” “Fourth of July” and “Across the Harlan County Line” are glossed impressionistic vignettes requiring much filling in from imaginative listeners. Yet, that knack also places Dave Alvin in the company of other such songwriter’s songwriters and nuanced recording artists who when playing live merit “leaning-in” to pick up the subtleties.

Dave Alvin performed the song he wrote for and sings in the FX TV series Justified to short, sharp and dramatic effect. Any fan of Pacific NW short short-story writer Raymond Carver should appreciate the humanity and craft captured in the pivotal verse, where concision heightens the impact:

Now when we met we were both livin’ far from home
Tryin’ to get by and tired of being alone,
For a moment I thought she was mine
Cause she had a voice I just wanted to believe
She said her mother was full blood Cherokee and her
Daddy was a union man down in the mines…
Fighting the good fight across the Harlan County Line

Dave Alvin and his accompanists showed similar vocal and instrumental restraint, which sometimes can leave a set full of Alvin’s tunes blurring hypnotically together in his weathered character-rich voice. When he brought his former The Guilty Women and The Guilty Ones collaborator, Christy McWilson out, the Seattle thrush brought lightning sparks with her in every swapped verse and styled harmony wedged artfully between Cindy Cashdollar’s steel slide and Rick Shea’s temperate acoustic accompaniment. These times also tragically accentuate the lives songwriter Dave Alvin has been limning on his backroads country blues and Rust Belt bar circuit. To wit, one Po’town is all too familiar with, boasting of more strip clubs per capita than any other U.S. city:

There’s a greyhound bus
Leavin’ the great Northwest
Takin’ her tonight
Back down south to Texas
She’s been dancing’ on tables
To pay rent and be able
To just get by and maybe stay clean.
Abilene, Abilene
Abilene, Abilene.

Well her daddy’d get drunk
Then he’d hit her hard
And her mama’d lie in bed
High on pills and talkin’ to God
But like her beautiful tattoos
These old memories she can’t lose
Since she ran away at fifteen.
Abilene, Abilene
There’s a town ahead that you’ve never seen
Maybe it’s better if you get off there and try to
Forget everything
Abilene.

Starin’ out the window
At the long cold night
Ahead on the horizon
Is another string of bright lights
She’s dreamin’ of a man she’s goin’ to meet
In a bar on an Austin street
Maybe this one won’t be so mean.

Abilene, Abilene
There’s a town ahead that you’ve never seen
And maybe it’s better if you get off there and try to
Forget everything
Abilene.

In a Texas bar there’s a man sittin’ alone
Thinkin’ of a girl he swore he’d wait there for
But he’s drinkin’ beers and he’s feelin’ old
Rememberin’ every lie he’s told
‘Til he changes his mind and he leaves.

Abilene, Abilene
There’s a town ahead that you’ve never seen
Maybe it’s better if you get off there and try to
Forget everything
Abilene, Abilene
Oh Abilene, Abilene.

Phil Alvin.

Phil Alvin.

When Dave Alvin welcomed his big brother with the BIG voice, Phil Alvin, to the stage, many of us among the Old Church’s Roots Song faithful learned more about the blues repertoire that led to the brothers’ collaborations on albums drawn from the vintage recordings and artists still working the So Cal circuit in their youth. Bo Carter’s unique take on risqué songwriting was represented on the rollicking “Who’s Been Here?” again benefiting from Christy McWilson’s salty delivery on her verses and Cashdollar’s wicked steel guitar. Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key to the Highway” has been covered by virtually the Who’s Who of the Folk Blues Revival, yet none of them had the voice that Phil brings in tandem with the razor’s edge riffs little brother Dave Alvin sneaks into the corners with Cashdollar’s cornered slide.

Although they did not cover Dave Alvin’s autobiographical song about hanging out at the seminal L.A. Folk Blues club the “Ash Grove” where a teen-age audience member and high school student named Ry Cooder came to study the revived careers of such 20th Century blues giants as Furry Lewis, Mississippi John Hurt, Big Mama Thornton, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Willie Dixon and Koko Taylor, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, Dave Alvin’s reminiscences of his big brother Phil getting him into the club to soak up such repertoire added depth to the sonic boom that rocked the aurally alive acoustics of The Old Church. This was done with human scaled voices and mostly acoustic instruments and no drummer in the packed house. Dear reader, the only way to convey some of the balm in Po’town or Gilead that was conveyed when that vintage steam punk rail car deposited the Roots On The Rails Revue at Union Station and Phil Alvin joined his brother and fellow “workers in song” on the Old Church stage is to ask that you share in this electric version clip with the Alvins’ and The Guilty Ones’ drummer Lisa Pankrantz adding a beat we nevertheless felt on this call and response anthem for our troubled times, “(I Declare) This Whole World’s In A Bad Condition.”

A well-earned encore brought Eliza Gilkyson and Butch Hancock back out onto the crowded stage for a mellow summer’s night staycation hammock-swaying group cover of Default Dylan’s nesting chestnut “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” I know this one has circulated on countless Dylan bootlegs and there are improv’d verses that have circulated far and wide carried by Roger McGuinn and the Byrds. However, even here Butch Hancock seemed to come armed with a redolent and seductive sidewalk café verse all his own, to the delight of the whole Rootsy chorus and the packed pews up and swaying as cathartic choir.

Back out on the street we find that the Alvin Brothers‘ sourcing of the Golden Gate Quartet’s Depression Era declaration of “This Whole World Is In A Bad Condition (I Guess I Better Make A Move)” remains as justified as the human desire tapped by Dylan et al to nest with loved ones. Any resolution of those forces creating that recognizable tension within human nature will require moving beyond that voice in our heads declaring just as soulfully

Now you see that politician
And he claims that he’s workin‘ for you
But when he asks you for a donation
He slips a dollar down in his shoe…

Mitch Ritter is a former Bay Area journalist for SF Weekly and The Bay Guardian. More recently he has covered the live music scene in Northern California and the Northwest for the international World Culture & Music newsstand magazine Dirty Linen, which was succeeded by an online incarnation, and an irregular contributor to The Outside World, airing over KBOO (listener-sponsored community radio 90.7 FM terrestrial in Po’Town streaming online sidereal to the wider world) beginning at midnight on Friday/Saturday morning.

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2 Responses.

  1. Bill Kuhn says:

    Nice writeup. But the Blasters were not formed in the Reagan era. 1979 – Jimmy Carter was running the show (or not) in those days.

  2. Jim Canales says:

    As a long time Dave Alvin fan, a past Roots On The Rails rider, and a disc jockey spinning Roots music, I can vouch for the quality of all the artists mentioned. I can especially hear and feel “Green Fields” soaring through that venue, as well as the big voice if Phil Alvin. And having had Rick Shea perform in our Wisconsin home last year, I can only say what nice people these artists truly are. Thx for the review…

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