The New Troubadours

Fresh sound abounds in the reflective music of a new generation of singer-songwriters

  • Share
  • Read Later

The music everywhere, on the air and on MTV, seems noisier than ever. Every time you change a channel it seems like some rapper is sticking his finger in your face: Yo! Listen up!

Well, not right now. I've got other things to listen to. O.K. -- you can hear the rejoinder immediately -- like what . . . Zamfir? Bart Simpson? The Brandenburg Concertos reinterpreted with singing crystals by Linda Evans' boyfriend?

Well, no. Just look around a little. There is some rock-solid music in our midst, but its coming has been so quiet that it seems to have arrived almost by stealth. Certainly it is not overwhelming the charts, and it is probably not to be heard on the radio anywhere short of the far ends of the FM dial. But it's worth searching out. If there's a college station in your area, they'll play it; any record store that doesn't feature a life-size color cutout of the Nelson twins will probably stock it. A couple of the musicians' names will be familiar to connoisseurs: Richard Thompson, Paul Brady. More -- and this is the beauty part -- will be new: Chris Whitley, Will T. Massey, Peter Himmelman, James McMurtry.

They are working, each on his own, the same territory. The music will sound familiar to anyone who has a long memory and an affection for tradition. It has shades of folk, honky-tonk, urban blues and revisionist country, but all of it can be called highly personal rock 'n' roll. These tunes have passion, intimacy and a shared but singular voice: the voice of the new troubadours.

It is hard to remember any time since the mid-'70s when there has been such a sudden flowering of reflective songwriting. Back then, the smash success of the Eagles, with their ingratiating harmonies and their canny outlaw lyrics, kicked open the doors for a whole generation of songwriters, from Jackson Browne to Warren Zevon and Karla Bonoff. Whether any 1990s group will crash the charts in such big-time fashion is not yet known. But they are already making a joyful noise, a reworking and reinvention of what the Irish songwriter Paul Brady, 44, calls "blue-eyed American rock 'n' roll."

And clear-eyed too. Whether they are veterans like Brady or Thompson, who at / 42 is in the bright midst of a career that started in the mid-'60s; or upstarts like Whitley, 30; or standard bearers like Himmelman, 31, who is Bob Dylan's son-in-law and has already released his fourth album, From Strength to Strength (Epic): all of them write songs with the same emphatic edge and aesthetic urgency that impelled the Lost Generation to write novels. Their songs carry similar thematic weight and have that same kind of conviction.

"I think of records as different chapters in an incredibly long and disjointed novel," says Thompson, whose superb new Rumor and Sigh (Capitol) displays both his carbolic lyricism and his stunning guitar virtuosity. Whitley's peak-heat debut album, Living with the Law (Columbia), comes out of a period of personal turmoil and heartbreak, including the dissolution of his marriage, about which he says, "It was a difficult time. Sort of impossible. I've always needed to write. ((But)) there is a price you pay for whatever goes on. I feel that I've paid something. You get scars from whatever you do."

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3