Tift Merritt is a North Carolina native and Grammy-nominated musician who wanted to write short stories until her father taught her guitar chords and Percy Sledge songs. Stitch of the World, her most recent collection, is her sixth studio album. Merritt also has recorded with classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein and sings in Andrew Bird’s old-time band. You can follow her on Twitter here.
(Photo credit: Taylor Pemberton)
I should first begin by admitting that Doug Paisley’s 2010 album Constant Companion has been my constant companion. I’ve heard people talk about albums they cook dinner by and I’ve always thought that making an album to accompany chopping carrots was really depressing. Much more than that, Constant Companion is a record I like to live to. The hushed singing and acoustic guitar voicings are tender, longing, and sometimes fierce. This record is a Canadian winter song for building a fire, nursing a child, growing old with someone you love. It evokes the good feeling of never really wanting to leave the house, where Townes Van Zant and Richard Buckner occasionally stop by because there is nothing to eat at theirs. (Of course, you welcome them in and feed them and they stay on a few days because of new snow.)
I had to go buy Mexican beer to finish listening to side one of Strong Feelings. No lone winter and much further down south, Strong Feelings puts Paisley’s acoustic pocket alongside a band of friends. It’s just the right kind of loose, a little like John Prine’s Sweet Revenge. It’s a laid-back Saturday night in far west Texas at Padre’s Bar. Doug Sahm’s ghost is at the bar, there’s shuffleboard and slow dancing in the back room, and everybody knows everybody. Late summer asphalt is still warm, the streetlights don’t work and someone probably needs to buy Paisley a beer.
As if through speakers in an open car, “Radio Girl” opens the record with an ode to the company kept between a man and his AM/FM. (Remember Nanci Griffith’s “Listen to the Radio”? Is this its stoned older cousin?) “Song My Love Can Sing” keeps Paisley’s acoustic guitar as its linchpin as it leans into the hard questions with toms and organs, a gentle kind of unsatisfied restlessness. Laid-back unison lines and Paisley’s loveliest vocal test the seams on “Our Love,” which is my favorite track. By “What’s Up Is Down” we have arrived at the outskirts bar and we all have a drink. Like the song says, ‘most everybody in this joint understands that the world has it backwards, but that doesn’t really affect how we are living. The Wurly and the acoustic have just finished playing in unison, the drums are warm and understated, Garth Hudson is about to take a solo, and we have just stumbled onto a really great band.
To walk the line between the stark intimacy of a singer-songwriter record like Constant Companion and the joyful noise of bringing the band is a really difficult task. To keep intimacy without being precious with a rhythm section is a challenge. Sure, you gain volume and palate by adding musicians, but if you lose that powerful closeness, the kind we see in Constant Companion, you can find yourself in a bad anthem and a bandana so fast. The way I feel like I’m watching my friends play, listening to this record, did not just happen by accident. The warmth is casual — but this isn’t a bar band or even a bar band record. It just feels close enough to you that it could only be going down at one time in one particular room, and to evoke that place so clearly is a real feat. The singing and playing inhabit the palpable energy of watching a live gig — perfection isn’t the point, the musicians just within eyeshot and feeding each other. I would guess pretty safely that is what Paisley was interested in mining on this record and he did it. So, let me buy this round.
But what is the real-world geography of this place that Paisley mines? To me, it is not so different from the places I grew up in down south, and the better places I turn to in my mind. Is this Canadian country? Could we call it Canadian Americana, or is that insulting? As many people naïvely do when they hear the words “country music,” would Paisley cringe if we called him that, or would he dig up his Glen Campbell and George Jones albums and ask us in? These days, it is fair to say that all bets are off in terms of regionalism and geography because that secret information flies everywhere, and it should. Fried chicken and biscuits are at home in Brooklyn and there’s probably a poutine shack in North Carolina. The trick that remains is the craft and the care there — making a presence strong enough to pull other people into a region of your own making.
But I wish we had better words for it — a way to talk about music as a tradition that was deeper and wider than indie/pop/folk/country/alt/singer-songwriter/whatever. I don’t know that these words serve us so well. To me, they seem to belie craft and divide so many people who are really working with fingers of the same hand. If I were to call Hank Williams a singer-songwriter, and Dolly Parton too, among other things, I can’t imagine Neil Young would disagree. Most of music’s heroes are foragers who don’t fit, don’t care what you think and aren’t going to fake it for you. They probably aren’t worried what you call them, so maybe I shouldn’t either. But that sounds like a lovely group of cowboys to me.
Whatever it is, what draws me most to Doug Paisley is that tight connection between his creative acoustic guitar playing and his very plainspoken, lovely singing. It is hard to tell, in the end, which will be my favorite Doug Paisley. Whether he’s alone or with his companions in tow, hopefully his country ahead is endless and we are all invited.