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20 Aug 09 Amanda Shires and Rod Picott

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Photo by Peter Cronquist

Photo by Peter Cronquist

July 19, 2009 Houston by Bill Aspinwall

You’re on a creek, no, a river, in the back of a canoe, hands full of paddle. Something about the Yukon, years ago. There’s a brief flickering in your peripheral vision. Or what? Wait, there it was again, some small, fluttering thing, off to the right. Maybe it was that shivering heap of wings, collapsing behind the pickup that just passed, a brief blur of feathers, settling like a sigh in a small, shuffled lump. A miniscule moan, a knelling beneath hearing, waxing into a bloom of notes, with caliche and corduroy undertones, keening and yearning. Then drop rushing rapids, boiling with snowmelt, paddling backwards, bouncing with double stops that match the river’s rhythm. There’s danger at play, mutiny on the Yampa, chaos on the Cache, skittering light shards in the Frying Pan, stone hard promises, lightly brushed chords, the prophetess and the scribe of Chronicles, bass notes thumping like standing wave hollows, Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos River. From underwater somehow, clouds are bubbling out at the surface and drifting off, shimmering clouds of notes, with darkness at their edges.

Dream memories; dreams and memories as are evoked by the songs of Amanda Shires and Rod Picott, an extraordinary duo, fiddle and guitar

Shires and Picott played at a house concert in Houston, hosted by a friend, David Britton. Before being invited, I had heard neither of Shires nor Picott, but I’m no encyclopedia. I do trust Britton’s judgment when it comes to music, and as luck would have it, I happened to be in Houston that particular weekend..

Photo by Peter Cronquist

Photo by Peter Cronquist

Amanda Shires (www.amandashires.net) is a fiddler, with classical training and some serious schooling in Western Swing. She also plays ukulele and she’s a founding member of the Thrift Store Cowboys, a very well received atmospheric indie-alt-country-punk rock group (apologies to all for that string of hyphenated pigeonholing); just another batch of inventive musicians out of Lubbock. Listen to their music and decide for yourself.

Rod Picott (www.rodpicott.net) (last name is pronounced “pie-caught”) is a guitarist/singer/songwriter from Maine, currently working out of Nashville, having co-written songs with old friend Slaid Cleaves and others. Straight forward songs with slightly twisted lyrics, reminds you of your hermit good friend, too long in the woods – but instead of fuzzy odd brain lichen, there’s clarity, apprehension, he’s sees different and writes scary good.

This performance was in the small, combined space of a living and dining room, a small head count, every chair practically a front row seat with some barbecue and beans to boot. A small suggested donation. Sir Paul for five hundred in a mega-coliseum-saurus-plex? Sorry, I’ll take a house concert any day; live, live music and food, glorious food.

House concerts are relatively new for presenting live music, but really, it’s just a continuation from the times of troubadours, a history of thousands of years: instruments of music played for a small gathering. In this particular case, it was a unique opportunity to hear some really excellent songwriting and musicianship in an immediate, intimate setting, unamplified.

Photo by David Britton

Photo by David Britton

Not to disparage sound engineers, but there are certain elements (in the right hands) that can’t be reproduced by an amplified sound chain, particularly with gifted musicians. Paradoxically, just the thing an audiophile should hear: the way an unamplified musician can judge just the right amplitude to fill a room completely (but no more), and then diminish to a whisper than can be just heard; replete and glorious.

Two sets (hand-written set list at their feet on the floor), a small group of listeners and two well matched musicians. Their music revolves around a genre we call Americana now; unadorned but flawless instrumentation, roots music, with lyrics upon which you can chew: glimmer and darkness, chicory and cane, spokeshave, chisel, hook and chain. From the barley shaking wind of County Clare to pigeon wing and Pigeon Forge. Spare stories, not-quite-legends, making the case with a subtle cross that leads into the box canyon of perjury – how did I get myself into all this here?

There’s an awesome range of tones coming from her five-string fiddle, Amanda – pigtails and cowboy boots, Cadillac and cognac, forked deer in the low ground, Panhandle Rag done sul due corde, dolcissimo and bariolage. Picott’s guitar playing includes sturdy finger picking or lightly strummed chords, steel strings that sound almost like nylon at times and a voice like rough silk. As a pair, they fit like joined wood, a whole lot of understatement, a velveteen jackalope. On ukulele, Shires plays first position chords that fit like a tailored suit.

Photo by David Britton

Photo by David Britton

They presented songs from their recent duo release, “Sew Your Heart with Wire” and songs from solo projects they have released separately. The lead vocals are sung by either with a few duets thrown in the mix. The lyrics tell a variety of stories, murder ballads with purple-full passion; spare, longing plaints, dust blown and shoeless; country rambles, with or without lyrics – country country, sand hill plums, land bank loans, gated irrigation pipe, snoose-chewing, Bud-guzzling Uncle Trafton’s tractor at auction.

The Thrift Store Cowboys (http://www.myspace.com/thriftstorecowboys) are known for the ability to create atmospheric music, sonic landscapes and surely some of that must come from Shires. She still tours with them and seeing them perform should be on your to do list.

Picott is an original; might make partner in the classic American storytelling firm of Irving, Poe, Crane & Twain. He sings in the range that includes tenor to baritone, with an occasional breathiness, capable of strength and whisper in the space of a line.

Shire’s singing is a thing unto itself. Clear mostly, twang enough as needed, and perhaps the most fascinating part is at the end of a line (usually, but sometimes elsewhere, when it fits) she’ll flutter in pitch around a note, rapid vibrato, like the beating of dove’s wing or a hummingbird or a meadow lark’s song. In less capable hands, it might prove an irritation, but with Shires, it happens as though it’s just meant to be. It’s almost subliminal at times, a unique and spellmaking style.

Photo by David Britton

Photo by David Britton

Shires grew up in Lubbock, having been born in Mineral Wells. An excellent interview of Shires by author Chris Oglesby is currently available online at (http://www.virtualubbock.com/intAmandaShires.html). There’s an appealing directness and grounded sensibility in Shires that shines back and forth in the interview, as well as a pleasantly skewed sense of humor. Another very good background article, sort of a combination of a review of her solo album “West Cross Timbers”, with some interview material is available on the Texas Music Magazine website: (http://www.txmusic.com/articles/2009/07/spotlight-amanda-shires).

If you’re interested in following the thread of the wealth of musicians from Lubbock, there’s a very good book available, also written by Chris Oglesby, Fire in the Water and Earth in the Sky (UT Press, 2006) that talks about that convergence.

With Shires, you have the opportunity to hear her connection to western swing fiddle masters, Texas-style, like Frank McWhorter, Lanny Fiel, Bobby Boatright and Tommy Allsup. These names were new to me prior to meeting her; if you have any interest in western swing or fiddle music I recommend doing whatever research you can on those names.

Picott was born in New Hampshire but raised in South Berwick, Maine – a place with a little bit more history than West Texas. The Maine of ship-building, saw mills and river powered textile factories, labor drawn from Scottish prisoner-of-war pools; the Maine of the days when America provided the Chinese-cheap labor for the Old World; the Maine of statehood negotiated under the Missouri Compromise. Remember the Maine?

Echoes of Maine rebound in Picott’s song “Work Shirts and Turpentine”, a classic Americana rendering of childhood and place.

Maybe a better way to introduce Picott is to have Slaid Cleaves tell it, as he talks about co-writing the song “Broke Down” with Picott:
“This is really Rod Picott’s song. He wrote it as his second marriage was breaking apart. He said, “Yeah, I’ve got these 4 year marriages down.” I just changed a few lines and smoothed out the melody. He’s the only songwriter I write with regularly, which is about once a year these days. We grew up around the corner from each other in a little town in Maine. We bonded as fellow outcasts, staying inside and listening to Beatles records when we were 10 instead of playing football outside. We formed a garage band in high school – the Magic Rats – named after a character in Springsteen’s “Jungleland.” Even at the time, we knew we’d stick with music for the long haul, while the other guys in the band would drift off into normal life.” http://www.slaidcleaves.com/stories/brokeThoughts.html)

Photo by Peter Cronquist

Photo by Peter Cronquist

One of the songs from the Shires/Picott CD, “Little Darlin” had some lines that were so disquietingly real, I had to play the song later, several times, just to make sure of what I was hearing – infidelity and murder, fiction told more real than life.

I’d like to think that the story we hear in this song isn’t nearly so lifelike. I’d like to not think that those white knuckles could be so human and not believe that someone might, after choking the life force from an unfaithful wife, actually think such a thing as “I only helped her keep the promise that she made”.

But every day we’re faced with choices and, humans that we are, our own choices aren’t always the stuff of stories we’d like to tell our grandchildren (if we’re lucky enough to have any).

How many reminders do we need to remember what is really important? To be reminded of why we learn to cook for our family and friends; why we read, travel, pray, dance, learn foreign languages, give thanks for our daily bread and breath, celebrate birth, myth, sex, death, wine, art, light and chocolate; why we make bread, music and love; why we love, fail and love again; why we fight only when we’re forced to; why a hundred feet above the deck in a pelting monsoon, we climb out on footropes to furl the royal, clinging to the jackstay; why we welcome the opportunity to be part of the sag wagon for our loved ones and why it’s so very, very important to listen to live music.

Civilization without live music is no civilization at all.

At the age I’m approaching, I’ve started what amounts to a bucket list that includes a list of musicians I’d like to see before joining the Big Top. I’ve added two more musicians to that list. Right now, I’m thankful for Amanda Shires and Rod Picott.

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