various artists,
No Song, No Supper
(Sugar Hill, 2003)

The concept behind this Sugar Hill compilation will appeal to any writer who has ever concocted a music mix by which to write: give a pile of CDs to a writer and let him pick his favorite songs from the bunch.

Mississippi writer Larry Brown, who specializes in down-to-earth fiction about the south, is the writer behind No Song, No Supper, and Sugar Hill's stable of folk, bluegrass, country and alt-country artists is an obvious match for such a writer.

The focus is singer-songwriters, and the 14 songs are well-written indeed. If you like songs where the focus is on sharply-evoked details, memorable stories and well-turned phrases, you will like this compilation. Brown pens a brief appreciation of each song, and the liner notes include complete lyrics and musician credits for each.

If you already like Sugar Hill's albums, you'll find plenty to enjoy here. There are big names like Guy Clark ("Let Him Roll"), Townes Van Zandt ("Waitin' Round to Die") and Jesse Winchester ("Sweet Loving Daddy"), but unless you buy everything Sugar Hill releases, you are likely to find some unfamiliar music. The sound ranges from bluegrass (Tim O'Brien & Hot Rize's "Nellie Kane," which sounds like a traditional song) to Mellencamp-style roots-rock (Scott Miller & the Commonwealth's "Daddy Raised a Boy") to flat-out country (Jimmy Murphy's "I Get a Longing to Hear Hank Sing the Blues"). The supporting credits include musicians like Sam Bush, John Cowan, Jerry Douglas, Roy Huskey Jr. and Ricky Skaggs, to name a few.

Some themes repeat through the collection. The pursuit of good times, for example, could not have two more different exemplars than The Gourds' raw, bluesy "Ants on the Melon" and Walter Hyatt's sophisticated western swing "Teach Me About Love." The hard knocks of life on hard-working, poor or just unlucky people are amply represented: Darrell Scott's breathtaking "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive" wraps up a whole bunch of hardscrabble Appalachian images and says everything worth saying in five minutes. It's the kind of song that makes aspiring songwriters look for another line of work. But the flip side is presented as well: Peter Rowan's "Before the Streets Were Paved" hearkens back to simpler times, then suggests that simpler times may just be a state of mind that can be carried into the present.

Two sides of family dysfunction are presented in Rodney Crowell's "The Rock of My Soul," which looks at an abusive marriage from the child's perspective, and Robert Earl Keen's "I'll Go on Downtown," in which a man with an apparently perfect life goes looking for trouble. Then there are just plain good lines like "He was a drinking man with a guitar problem," the opening to James McMurtry's "Fast as I Can." Finally, there is Terry Allen's indescribable "Cortez Sail," which might be about going home to Mexico, or about the history of Spanish colonization, or about something else entirely. (Allen's song "The Beautiful Waitress" also makes a cameo appearance in the cover art.)

This is a top-notch collection of songs. If you like this kind of music, you probably have some of these songs already, but you are sure to find some new gems here. If you're curious about country and bluegrass-inflected roots music, No Song, No Supper is a great place to start.

- Rambles
written by Jennifer Hanson
published 5 July 2003

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