Art Of Song
'Cry, Cry, Cry' Celebrates The Trans-Genre Tradition Of Songwriting.
By Dave Irwin
NOVEMBER 30, 1998: IN THE BEGINNING, there was Woody. And Guthrie begat Dylan and Dylan begat the deluge of singer/songwriters. And then there emerged the concert festival.
Cry Cry Cry is a celebration of the contemporary singer/songwriter tradition, fueled by a love of great songs. Featuring Dar Williams, Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky, Cry Cry Cry is less a band and more a labor of love by three individual artists. Their goal is to give more visibility to the current fruits of an American tradition that goes back to the Depression, when Woody Guthrie took to the road with a beat-up guitar to bring his music directly to people around the country.
The current singer/songwriter scene is more nebulous concept than specific style. It ranges from alt.country artists Rosanne Cash and Lucinda Williams; middle ground pop/folkies like Shawn Colvin, Peter Case, Suzanne Vega, John Gorka and Greg Brown; to neo-traditionalist Gillian Welch and folk/punk Ani DiFranco. The genre even has its own magazine, Performing Songwriter.
"It's like a family tree getting broader and broader the further down it goes," explains Richard Shindell. "It's kind of thin at the top, and then as generations are added, it gets wider. Those branches have reached out from people like Hank Williams or Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, and have continued to branch out into all these different strands. A lot of people who are singer/songwriters now are musical descendants of others who were doing it long before. It seems like a very healthy tree at the moment."
Dar Williams is the best-known name of the CCC project. She's sold a respectable 300,000 albums since her 1995 debut, The Honesty Room. Although gladly adding her name and voice to the project, she's taking a back seat to Shindell and Kaplansky as spokespersons.
Shindell has three previous solo albums to his credit. Joan Baez recorded three of his songs on her most recent disc. In college, Shindell played in the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band with John Gorka. Kaplansky took a different route, earning a doctorate in clinical psychology and opening her own practice in New York before realizing that what she really wanted to do was to sing and write songs.
"I started out as a singer and it was going well," Kaplansky remembers. "All of a sudden I decided to quit the solo career. I was afraid of a whole variety of things: fear of success, fear of failure, fear of some of the things it would stir up in myself, and so I ran away. In the course of becoming a clinical psychologist, I went into serious therapy and that's where I figured it out. When I realized I wanted to be a singer and I had this album in hand (recorded while in graduate school and produced by her friend, Shawn Colvin), I started knocking on doors and doing solo gigs again for the first time in 10 years."
Kaplansky notes that the freedom of being a singer/songwriter also carries a price. Playing solo in front of a room full of people, there is little room for elaborate artifice. "Most of the time, it's you on a stage alone," she says. "You relating to the audience, you singing your own songs. You're definitely bearing your soul. That's why it's so hard."
The three artists got together in stolen moments, back stage between shows, at the hotel after gigs, sharing songs, playing new works for each other, turning each other on to new discoveries. The Cry Cry Cry album features songs by known and obscure artists. They selected songs by REM, Greg Brown, Robert Earl Keen, and lesser-known writers like Leslie Smith and Canadian James Keelaghan. (The latter will open the Tucson show. Other songwriters whose works appear on the album will open subsequent shows on the tour.)
The Tucson performance opens a relatively leisurely tour schedule that will continue into April, leaving room for each of their solo careers. Each will do a short set of their own songs during their shows together.
The Cry Cry Cry album is unique in its generosity to the selected songwriters. Biographical and background information about each writer is included, as well as the lyrics and information for further contact, such as phone numbers, mailing addresses and websites.
The Internet has played an important part in the proliferation of singer/songwriters, according to Shindell.
"With the Internet, with broad-band transmission, a lot of the things that used to be the province of the record companies--manufacturing, marketing, distribution--are becoming something anyone can do," he explains. "They don't have the same power as Disney or Sony, but they do perfectly well without it. Power is no longer concentrated in the hands of a few who can make decisions about who gets recorded, or who gets distributed or marketed. The major labels are becoming irrelevant to what's happening."
While the personality of a singer/songwriter may be what engages the audience, in the long run it always comes back to the underlying strength of the song itself.
"Somebody like Emmy Lou Harris or Rosanne Cash transcends any number of genres," according to Shindell. "There's not that much difference between pop music and Americana and country and the more folky stuff or alternative stuff. It's all the same music with different production. Going back to the Appalachian, Anglo-Irish ballad tradition, it's one of soul and heart and beauty. To the extent that someone comes up with that today, the genre is irrelevant. The song has to make the connection. I think there should be a genre of good songs, the 'music with a soul' genre. We could just let anybody in."
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