Saturday, June 27, 2015

Roadkill Review: The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell

This is a curious novel. Short, but not at all to the point. As you would expect from Daniel Woodrell the writing is largely superb. His prose is more lyrical here than in previous outings, and while generally suited to the tone of the book there were places where it was in danger of overshadowing the story. That in itself is a minor grumble, a bigger issue for me is the wandering narrative, which often dead-ends in vignettes of bit-part players and robs the book of any real momentum.

The Maid’s Version is not a bad book. It’s just not my kind of book. I am not really one for musings and metaphors. This is as close as Woodrell has come to writing an out-and-out literary novel. I have a horrible suspicion that may prove to be his ultimate objective. If that is the case then I wish him well, but I don't think we can remain friends.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Pulling Hard on the Sorrow and Smoke

The UK has always been reluctant to embrace American culture. It’s not that we dislike all things USA, they're just not really, you know...our cup of tea. Here a minor celebrity TV dance-off will guarantee prime time ratings while outstanding shows like Breaking Bad run unnoticed in late night slots, often disappearing from the screen all together after just one or two series.

The same is largely true of American music. The UK charts have their fair share of US pop acts, but real American music barely gets any airplay. Country artists who sell millions of records across the pond (if you are under the age of 30 a record is a hard copy of a download) are routinely ignored here. In fact country music is often the subject of ridicule. For many it conjures up visions of sad old men dressed like John Wayne, yee-hawing at Kenny Rogers tribute acts in the working men's clubs of small provincial towns. In an attempt to avoid this widely held stereotype country is sometimes re-branded as folk music in the UK, which doesn't really help as that suggests bearded men in cable knit sweaters singing about sheep dogs. Sometimes you just can’t win.
I might be getting old (at least I am according to Katie who insists I am fast approaching the age of socks and sandals), but I don’t dress in western attire or cable knit sweaters for that matter, and I have rarely, if ever been known to yee-haw. However I do have a deep abiding love of that much maligned brand of American music.

Last Sunday evening I drove the 70 odd miles back to my own provincial home town and met up with my two oldest friends, who had reluctantly agreed to come with me to see one of the best singer / songwriters they (and probably you) have never heard of, Slaid Cleaves.
Over a drink or two in the bar of the Sun Hotel we got caught up and generally congratulated each other on still being alive and kicking after all these years, before heading upstairs for the musical entertainment.
Our reminiscing in the bar had lead to us rocking up a little after the advertised start time, which was apparently a felony offence judging by the withering look we got from the guy on the door. I have been to a lot of gigs in my time, most were in cramped dark clubs with sticky floors. The pastel pink walls of The Sun Hotel's function room and the hundred or so dinning chairs, arranged around the postage stamp stage made me think we had mistakenly walked in on a wedding reception. I could see by the dubious looks my two friend's exchanged that this wasn't what they had been expecting either.  
We hurriedly made our way to the only reaming seats, which were way over in back. I had never actually been to a concert where the audience was required to sit before. Sure, sometimes I had, but only on the floor and only when I was too wasted to stand. At least there were no cowboy hats on the heads in front of us to block our view.
Any doubts about the venue were quickly forgotten as Slaid launched into the stone cold classic, Horseshoe Lounge. His soft, effortless vocal soaring above the crisp melodies of Scrappy Newcomb's guitar. My friends nodded their approval.
The next song was another old favourite, My Drinking Days Are Over, which was followed by the brand new, Take Home Pay both of which received generous applause from a knowledgeable audience (please note the absence of any yee-hawing.) I could see by the foot tapping action going on alongside me that my friends were digging it and by the time Slaid had worked through a few songs from his latest album, Still Fighting The War including the damn near perfect blue-collar heartbreak of Welding Burns they were hooked.
Slaid & Me (My buddy is no photographer)
It goes without saying that Slaid Cleaves is a an accomplished musician, but more than that he is a damn fine storyteller too. His lyrics speak of hard times, working men and smoky bars. Call it County or Folk or whatever the hell you like, I really don't give a shit, for me good music is the same as good literature, it’s all about the story.
Time flies when you're having a blast and all too soon we had reached the wistful longing of Slaid's traditional closer, One Good Year. When the applause had died down I shook hands with my friends, and they both left for home clutching newly purchased copies of Still fighting the War. For my part, I left feeling very grateful that Slaid Cleaves still bothered to tour a country that had the nerve to relegate his exceptional talent to the upstairs room of a small town hotel.