This third post continues our review of Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue’s new album Lost and Found. In particular it discusses how Vanessa Niemann has married the tradition of outlaw introspection with lyrics about pride, thoughtful empathy and reflexive growth.
Having shared the stage with Willie Nelson, Niemann is no stranger to this aspect of alternative country. Whether sung by himself or the others singers that he wrote songs for, Nelson’s blend of rock and folk rhythms, country instrumentation and introspective lyrics have always been able to pull at your heart strings.
According to Michael Streissguth, author of Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville, Jennings and Nelson became outlaws when they “won the right” to record with the producers and studio musicians they preferred. The outlaws wrote their own material, had creative input in their albums, and they refused to conform to what society required of them. For more on the different definitions of Outlaw and our contemporary context see this blog link here.
Key to the genre is that you’ve lived what you sing and your singing comes across as authentic. See for example Jennings conveying his personal feel in songs like Ladies Love Outlaws written by Lee Clayton and Old Five And Dimers (Like Me) written by Billy Joe Shaver. Old Five and Dinners’ lyrics covey a sense of a person that is not caught up in a consumerist, main stream, way of life:
I’ve spent the lifetime making up my mind to be
More than the measure of what I thought others could see
Good luck and fast bucks are too far and too few between
Catalog buyers and old five and dimers like me.
She stood beside me letting me know she would be
Something to lean on when everything ran out on me
Fenced yards ain’t hole cards and like is not never will be
Reason for rhymers and old five and dimers like me.
It’s taking me so long and now that I know I believe
All that I do or say is all I ever will be
Too far and too high and too deep ain’t too much to be
Too much ain’t enough for old five and dimers like me.
Mhm, mhm, an old five and dimer is all I intended to be..
Songwriter: Billy Shaver, Old Five And Dimers lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC
The lines ‘Too far and too high and too deep ain’t too much to be, Too much ain’t enough for old five and dimers like me’ have an ambiguity to them.
In keeping with the melancholic tune that accompanies the lyrics, they could be read as illustrating that the singer has experienced a lot of heartache but they could also be read that he is and was game for anything. That’s the lovely aspects of the more interesting and introspective outlaw songs, they make you work for their meaning.
The lines ‘All that I do or say is all I ever will be’ and ‘an old five and dimer is all I intended to be’ are much clearer. They point to a ‘Que Sera, Sera. Whatever will be, will be.’ philosophy which is a strong aspect of the outlaw genre. Niemann’s thoughtful and touching songs on Lost and Found also have this que sera, sera quality.
In My Dreams Again, Come Home and Found Myself Instead
In My Dreams Again (V. Niemann & R. Cangelosi), Come Home (V. Niemann) and Found Myself (V. Niemann & R. Cangelosi). Instead all have powerful lyrics and haunting introspection underpinned by beautiful tunes. These songs, once again, demonstrate that Gal Holiday has matured to the point where she can hold you as a listener and ask you to understand and relate to her perspectives of different significant life events.
The warm tones and rhythm of In My Dreams Again, possibly, makes it the catchiest tune on the album. There is no doubt it is great to dance to, fills a larger venue perfectly and has ‘hit’ potential.
With lines like, ‘Life so full of trouble I’d never recommend’, ‘Of course you already knew – my heart was glad to talk to you’. and ‘ Missing you but dreams will carry me through’, it will make any old man’s heart twang blue. Indeed, Niemann has stated that In My Dreams Again and Found Myself Instead are her favourite tracks from the Album and she sings these songs in a manner that feels proud and true.
The fact that In My Dreams Again, is about Niemann’s relationship with her Grandfather also gives a very ‘lived’ feel to the song that echoes of troubles shared; hearts connected and relatives trusted and adored.
In My Dreams Again is a well-crafted, woven, tapestry of unqualified affection expressed in verse and stave; a story of unconditional love for eternity and an age. By speaking of Gal’s troubles that she seeks to mend with friendship, care and inter-generational hugs, it sets up later songs on the album that also combine melancholy, introspection and sorrow. Songs that paint a picture of Gal’s yearnings,.
The most sorrowful song on the album is Come Home; which hauntingly and tragically sketches out one of Gal’s troubled life events.
Come Home tells the story of a young woman who has experienced an extreme loss and is brought home to her family. The song is a triumph of specificity in the sense that you can visualise the painful, yet loving, scene; ‘Mother and father, brother and sister, all waiting there, show me they care’. With vocal clarity, lilting melancholy and lament strummed sadness, the song gives timeless context to the oldest of emotions: loss, sorrow and tragedy; emotions that tear your heart out.
Vanessa Niemann’s voice was made to sing this song. The accompanying drum beat, harmonies, piano and horns open you up to why the underlying theme of this album is hiraeth. The singer pleads to come home but home is a place now lost and changed for ever. This song will touch everyone who hears it and it will have specific meaning for anyone who has lost a loved one in unexpected or tragic circumstances.
The first time I listened to Come Home I felt it was an important song, even before the lyrics started Rose Cangelosi’s drumming had indicated that this song was different. Niemann’s ability to authentically tremble as she conveys a sense of loss, love and pain is one of the reasons why I buy her albums. The first line of Come Home has that emotive unsettling feel to it that enables the track to reach into your chest and grab your heart.
Her version of Loretta Lynn’s Love Is the Foundation also does this, so much so, it is better than the original. Similarly, Jimi Palacios argues that Niemenn’s version of Don’t Think Twice is better than Dylan’s. I came to the conclusion that Jimmi was right whilst singing along to Niemenn’s version of Don’t Think Twice in the car one day.
See if you agree with Jimi by listening to Gal holiday’s version Don’t Think Twice at Jazz Fest. It is worth waiting for the crowd’s reaction at the end of this you tube video:
In Come Home Gal Holiday teaches us that there is something important about slowing down a country song so nobody can escape its meaning. And, so the tortured lyrics have time to capture the audience.
Commentators argue that the top country/folk songs with specificity are:. He Stopped Loving Her Today, She’s Got You, Blue Bayou, Pale Blue Eyes and For The Good Times. I would go for Linda Rondstadt’s version of Blue Bayou because it’s slower and more meaningfully sung. But, that’s just my view and everyone will have their own equally valid perspective. For example, Harry Kaplan of the Twangrala blog (check Harry’s podcast 6 here saddest songs in country music) has a quite different view on the saddest country songs.
There are some folk/blues songs such as Black Is the Colour, Ride On and Nancy Spain, that can compete with country songs. Indeed, Christy Moore may be the King, and Nina Simone the Queen, of slow melancholy.
Christie’s voice became slower, rounder and more melancholic over time. Recently, at French Quarter Fest and in when she visited Edinburgh there seemed to be a warmer, deeper and more meaningful quality to Niemann’s sound. She has very successfully captured this deeper feeling in her album and she has been aided in this process by the new line up of the Revue.
It is hard to say that any single song on the album is my favourite song but Come Home touched me the most out of any of the songs;. It affected me a lot. There are plenty of other songs on the album that might well make similar connections with other listeners; but I won’t quick forget the first time I listened to Come Home.
After hearing Gal Holiday play in Edinburgh, my friend and colleague Nik Bizas sent me a podcast entitled ‘Why Country Music Makes You Cry’ by Revisionist History. It utilised Bobby Braddock’s writing to argue that a song makes us cry; when melancholy collides with specificity. Vanessa Niemann does ‘don’t spare me, sister’ specificity extremely well.
Lots of songs on the album enable Gal Holiday, with great melancholy, to grab your heart. But, for me, Come Home is different because it tears your heart right out. It does so, by placing you at the scene and inviting your empathy.
Jonny Cash suggests that the use of I and you in songs is emotive. Faith Hill did this on the Albums Faith and Breathe; when she posed questions like ‘Who Am I’ and ‘What Do I Want?’. Such titles, may, beg for your attention a little too much. Gal Holiday is much more sophisticated in her approach which often poses as many questions as it answers.
Faith Hill’s strength is that she defines her-self through various experiences and across albums. Jocelyn Neal calls this an emerging reflexive identity. There is no doubt that Vanessa Niemann has evolved Gal Holiday’s reflexive identities over the course of her albums (on Lost and Found she is aided in this process by the song writing of Jimbo Mathus, Rose Cangelosi and Justin LeCuyer).
It should be noted that in Come Home, Niemann’s specificity does not stretch to telling the audience the full story of her loss. The full story remains untold. In interviews Niemann enjoys blurring the lines between Gal Holiday and herself and states that she is happy to respond when people call her Gal. This enables Gal to express an ‘authentic’ narrative but this authenticity does not mean that every aspect of Vanessa’s history is revealed.
This layering of identities means that Niemann chooses when the audience get to move closer in and when they are held at arms-length. And, her ‘partial stories’ approach enables Niemann to keep the audience intrigued; seeeking further answers and insights as they journey through Lost and Found.
In Come Home, Niemann discreetly, partially, respectfully, sensitively and soulfully exposes Gal’s private grief in a way that illustrates a sense of loss that is eternal and immeasurable. Come Home is a partially untold story of misfortune, of a life torn and ruined, that draws us closer; to shed a tear; most human. The final lines, sung with as much pride as In My Dreams Again, are:
And when the flowers blossom once more,
The ground marks with rain,
I will smile for them
Again and again.
With tears in my eyes.
Back to Black; with chorus, horns and dignity, Come Home provides us with poetry from the heavens that lands on a road ill thrawn, to take its place by a carriage; black and slowly drawn. And, after the deluge? Beyond suffering. Not pity, nor shame, but to smile within; with tearful resignation, solitude and pain.
In reality, Come Home is actually more of a Gilder’s pearl than Amy’s penny rolling up inside. And, when singing Come Home, Vanessa Niemann lives up to her name, meaning Butterfly, in the sense that she is able to lend her emotive voice to songs that get inside us, have a very physical impact on us and set off ‘butterflies’.
Lost and Found’s ability to express pain but also resilience should have country and alternative country followers requesting Gal Holiday tunes to be played on their radio stations. The emotion that Niemann gives to songs in Lost and Found can also be found on songs in her live album such as Love is the Foundation. Niemann’s emotive approach gives us permission to let go of and release our own feelings of loss.
If we think of In My Dreams Again, Come Home and Found Myself Instead as three stages in a character’s journey, we can conclude Gal Holiday has experienced a life changing injury that still influences her dreams, but, she has learned to rise from this set back.
Found Myself Instead explains this revival by offering the tour of all tours; a journey inside our heroine’s head. We find it to be an appreciative place, full of calming grace where weapons have been down laid; in the sense that Gal has moved beyond cultures of blame and learnt to stand on her own, again. The song speaks of Gal’s ability to overcome her life issues and find a re-emergent self-esteem:
For too long I had relied,
On someone else till it hurt my pride
Learning to stand on my own again,
My legs were week and my back was bent
I was still all alone, all alone with you…
Now I’m all alone, all alone with me…
The song’s zen like introspection, once again, indicates that a deeper story is still to be told. It’s reflective nature connects with the idea, in Come Home, that Gal has had to learn how to smile again and in songs like Someone Like You, Treat You Better and How Could It Be; that Gal is now ready to find someone special, having experienced the hesitancy of an unrequited love situation and the false starts of meeting the wrong type of person.
Found Myself Instead also utilises the line, ‘I’m On My Way’ to continue the golden threaded album theme that Gal is on a journey that involves her living her life with freedom, independence and imagination. Through out the album, we get the impression that Gal’s fluttering wings are searching for uplifting winds, but, that the place she is going to is not quite in sight.
The idea of flighty freedom is, finally, brought to a crescendo in the last song of the album; Wayward Winds. But, not before Gal reintroduces the idea from The Bottle and the Booze that all life journeys, whether fantasy or non-fiction, have to engage with morality and ethics.
Our next installment of this review discusses Niemann’s morality tales in more detail: