Ronny Elliott,
I've Been Meaning to Write
(Blue Heart, 2012)

Nobody is quite like Ronny Elliott. He's written lots of exceptional songs, including two of my favorites, "Jack's St. Pete Blues" and "Tell the King the Killer's Here." The point, however, is less that they're fine songs than that nobody else thinks to write songs like these. The first evokes Jack Kerouac's alcohol-fueled downhill slide in St. Petersburg exile. The second is a true story, forgotten by nearly everybody but Elliott, of a night when a drunken, pistol-waving Jerry Lee Lewis showed up uninvited at Graceland and demanded admittance, seeking to settle ancient scores with Elvis.

Born in 1947, as he is wont to remind us on his various recordings, the Tampa-based Elliott is a nostalgist, but not in any maudlin sense. To him the past is not a better place; it's just a more interesting one. As usual, on I've Been Meaning to Write (his first CD in five years) he draws on his encyclopedia-level knowledge of pop-culture arcana, calling up everybody from Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Eva Gabor to Woody Guthrie, Chet Baker and Johnny Cash, plus others markedly more obscure. For example, there's the real-life Harry Gibson, one of countless abundantly gifted musicians fated to become roadkill on the road to rock 'n' roll. He's the subject of "Handsome Harry the Hipster." Among other recurring, improbable fascinations, Elliott manages to make art of the waste and corruption of the music industry.

He's also pretty astute on the subject of male-female relations, on which he manages not to recycle a single cliche or to give voice to one saccharine sentiment. Being around long enough will knock that out of you, and Elliott more than anybody -- except maybe Richard Thompson, whom he resembles in some very broad sense -- precisely documents what it's like to live on late in life on the shards of youth's romantic hopes. "These Dreams" is positively unnerving in that respect. On hearing it initially, I was shaken by the strange, irrational fear that through clairvoyance Elliott had uncovered a deep personal secret of mine. Don't be surprised if it hits you the same. Besides its extraordinary content, it boasts a melody -- reminiscent of one that might result from a collaboration of Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison -- that'll settle inside your brain and follow you around, affording you beauty but no comfort.

Musically, Elliott's sound is a fusion of rock, folk and country ("Something Bad" is sort of like a lost Hank Williams song, only smarter), perfectly primed for his particular brand of storytelling. It'll serve as testimony for those who've been kicked down and staggered to their feet more than a few times over too many years, and to recall it all with frightening clarity. And paid attention, too, to everything else that was happening meanwhile in America. Call it memory music, and marvel.

music review by
Jerome Clark

17 November 2012

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