What does it mean to live in the South these days? If you're not a fan of rap (where Atlantans like OutKast are big stars), there is little out there speaking to the Southern experience, other than increasingly bland Nash-trash and the strange affectations of Kid Rock.
The best new record about the South, in fact, came out almost 30 years ago. Randy Newman's magnificent Good Old Boys, just reissued by Rhino, is astounding in its ability to criticize and empathize at the same time; and for the way Newman (a Californian born in Louisiana) turns the table on Northerners who delighted in condescending to the South during the Civil-Rights movement. Take "Rednecks," for example, a song as shocking today as when it was written, thanks to a chorus that frequently repeats the line "we're keeping the niggers down." Sung from the point of view of a white man from Birmingham, it seems at first like an aw-shucks admission of the South's faults. Near the end, though, we get: "Now your northern nigger's a Negro/You see he's got his dignity/Down here we're too ignorant to realize/That the north has set the nigger free/.../Yes he's free to be put in a cage in Harlem in New York City/And he's free to be put in a cage on the south side of Chicago ..." et cetera.
Newman's gift for wringing both poignancy and humor out of eccentric characters is showcased beautifully on Sail Away, also freshly remastered. From the title track, sung as a slave trader's sales pitch for America, to a song in which God lists the reasons he loves the stupid humans he made, to a tune meant for that other godlike figure, Frank Sinatra, there are more odd angles here than in a German Expressionist film. If you only know Newman's name from his (finally) Oscar-winning soundtrack music, you haven't heard the good stuff yet.
Robin Holcomb has heard it, though. Newman's spacious musical arrangements, his combination of piano and rock instrumentation, and his eagerness to take the South seriously are all evident in her work — although she trades most of his humor for sadness, or at least heavy-duty sobriety. Her new disc, The Big Time (Nonesuch), is a stark and gorgeous thing; you can hear every minute of the 10 years that have passed since her last collection of songs (a mostly instrumental disc, Little Three, came out in 1996) slowly chiseling the surface of Holcomb's supple yet somehow old-lady-like voice.
She's a mix unseen in the current crop of female singer-songwriters: Her songs are personal without the confessional confrontations that have turned some albums platinum; and they're beautiful without being flowery. Holcomb's influences range from the downtown New York avant garde (her chord progressions are more challenging than her lyrics) to the heartland soundscapes of Aaron Copland. Her collaborators here come from the jazz, country, folk, and rock worlds, and blend together perfectly. (Incidentally, two of the players here — guitarist Bill Frisell and former Bad Liver Danny Barnes — have their own good new record out on Nonesuch, titled The Willies.)
As her press biographies always note, Holcomb's interest in rural folk traditions are also partly derived from the time she spent as a sharecropper in the Carolinas. A recent collection of Alan Lomax's field recordings on Rounder, Deep River of Song: South Carolina, shows part of where she's coming from. Made in the '30s and '40s, the tracks capture farmers on front porches, prisoners on chain gangs, and mourners in a funeral home. The styles (and, to be expected with ethnographic recordings, the sound quality) varies, but most of the music is unified by being recorded in Murrells Inlet, a community about as isolated as you could get at the time in America.
Even seven decades later, some striking individual voices pop up here, like Lillie Knox, whose stunning rendition of the gospel tune "Got the Keys to the Kingdom" swings gently with a nonchalance suggesting that the singer might really believe, regardless of her painful experience, what she sings here: "The world can't do me no harm."