Momentum: GRAY-HAIRED GROUPIES
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- "It was a rough week," my friend Fern said in passing=
at the Iron Horse, a small but world-famous music club in Northampton, Mas= s. "I followed Greg for seven shows in nine days. I'm exhausted."
In her younger days, Fern traveled through Europe with the Rolling Stone= s. But just because she's now older, has a few marriages under her belt, a= nd is finished raising a few fine children, it does not mean that her passi= on for music is any less intense or sensual.
It only means that her tastes have deepened and matured.
It used to be the raw energy and passion of rock that captured her. Now = it's now the raw energy and passion -- plus the intelligence and wit --of a= few gifted, powerful and (very) masculine musicians in the singer-songwrit= er category.
They capture me, as well. The reason I know Fern, and a whole crew= of devout Greg Brown, Chris Smither, Dan Bern and Fred Eaglesmith fans -- = of both sexes -- is because every time one of these musicians play at the I= ron Horse, all the gray-haired groupies are there, and I am one of them.
When I say that I'm a groupie, I don't mean that I would like to be= tray my happy marriage for a one-night stand with any of these performers. = Nor does Fern. We simply derive a deep pleasure from their music and thei= r performances.
Since it's the gift-giving season, and CDs make pleasant stocking-s= tuffers, I thought that now was a good time to mention them.
Singer-songwriters have a bad rep. They're supposed to be "sensiti= ve New Age guys," as Christine Lavin calls them in a famous song. Put less = tactfully, they're supposed to be wimps. And many of them are.
But not all of them. Iowan Greg Brown is the proud son of a hillbi= lly. In a deep and growling voice that one critic says "sounds as if he swa= llowed a distant thunderstorm," Brown tells magical stories about the wild = Ozark blood that runs in his veins.
In a song filled with longing for the past called "Canned Goods," f= or example, he talks about his grandmother's gift for preserving: "She got = magic in her, you know what I mean, she puts the sun and rain in with the g= reen beans."
Brown is wise about the modern world; he's also a fabulous storytel= ler. We -- the gray-haired groupies -- just want to hang out with him. By= following him around the Northeast, Fern has become something of afriend o= f his. Last year he flew her and her husband to a show he did on the West = Coast.
Brown's father died last year -- he was scheduled to do a show at t= he Iron Horse when he got the call, and we all felt we were a part of hispa= in. Now he's taking a 14-month holiday from touring, but he's leaving uswi= th a splendid new CD called "Covenant" (on his own label, Red House Records= ).
If I was just starting to listen to Brown, however, I would buy "= The Live One," a 1995 live album that displays his story-telling as well as= his songwriting, singing and guitar-playing.
Chris Smither is a bluesman from New England who is a brilliant gui= tarist -- even when he's alone, he sounds like he has a whole band playing = with him. He's a master of rhythm. He possesses a soulful and hard-earned= wisdom that he shares with grace. He writes beautiful songs, and he also = does covers of great songs by John Hiatt and the old bluesmen.
My favorite Smither record is the 1993 "Happier Blue" on Flying Fis= h records. It has his song "The Devil's Real," on it. It's the best descri= ption of the artist's life I've ever heard: It was then that I decided = my life was being guided/ By a second-rate dependence on first-class thieve= s/ They told me I was breaking through when I was breaking down/ By the tim= e I learned the difference they had all left town.
Smither has just put out a stunning new live CD called "Live As I'l= l Ever Be."
Fred Eaglesmith is a Canadian wildman who plays country rock with a= band he calls the Flying Squirrels, and which includes Washboard Hank, who= plays percussion on himself.
Eaglesmith is a farmer and the son of farmers, a fine actor, a gift= ed storyteller, a lover and a fighter both, and a man who pulls no punches.= He's written I don't know how many "I love trains" and "I love fast cars"= songs, but he's also written with great about what it is like to see the f= amily farm auctioned off in front of your eyes.
His choice in women is extremely suspect. Here's a sample lyric fr= om the break-up song "Good Enough": I know she's got some other guy/ He= looks like he's in junior high/I stole myself a car last week/ drove it up= to Willis Peaks/ Covered it in gasoline/ But it's not the same when she's = not with me.
His last recording is "50-odd Dollars" on Razor & Tie, but you can'= t go wrong with any of his CDs.
Dan Bern is an Ani diFranco discovery and another wildman. He'syou= nger than the other three, and more openly sexual, but he, too, is funnyand= outspoken.
In one of his songs, a friend dreams of having oral sex with Madon= na. But after achieving his dream, in a hotel in Italy, he finds he has not= hing left to live for.
In a brilliant song about Marilyn Monroe, Bern says she should have ma= rried Henry instead of Arthur Miller. "And if she did, he'd have taken her= to Paris ... And if she did, she'd had feltlike a woman and not like a pho= tograph in a magazine... And if she did, she might be alive today."
All four of these men put on full-tilt, impassioned live shows in s= mall clubs like the Iron Horse, which are scattered throughout the nation. = They all have Web sites. And oddly enough, they are all much bigger stars = in Europe, where sex appeal (as opposed to pretty-boy looks) coupled with i= ntelligence and wit, is far more appreciated.
And they are all cult heroes to the graying groupies who adore the= m and who pack their performances. I am proud to be one of them.
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writes about culture,politics= , economics and travel.