Jeff Black's declaration of independence
By Michael McCall
JULY 13, 1998: Jack Kerouac didn't liked being called a "beat poet." The tag didn't adequately describe his desire to create a vibrant, direct form of autobiographical fiction that mirrored the boundless possibili- ties of the human spirit. Instead, he often said, he would have preferred to have been known as a "lumberjack bard."
That's also a term that fits the high-minded yet down-to-earth songwriting of broad-shouldered singer Jeff Black. Like Kerouac's own work, Black's songs explore the tension between freedom and responsibility. With the July 14 release of his debut album, Birmingham Road, Black introduces to the world a sprawling form of writing that is uniquely his own. "The full moon dies where Ulysses cries/So darkness can have her way," he sings in the title song. At his best--which covers most of his 12-song album--Black links such poetic couplets into multilayered stories that get to the heart of life's fundamental questions.
"What do I want? What do I need?," he intones in a chorus, repeatedly chanting the words with the hope that it might suddenly bless him with a clear response. Birmingham Road never gives direct answers or easy platitudes, but its songs do convey an air of optimism that life is worth experiencing, love is worth sharing, and our hearts are worth searching.
Like Kerouac, Black occasionally romanticizes the road; unlike Kerouac, he suggests that life's greatest treasures can be found close to home. More often than not, his songs are about maintaining or reestablishing ties to one's past. This idea connects deeply with the theme of freedom on Birmingham Road. According to Black, liberation comes from the acceptance that life's daily experiences are as important and as formative as life's moments of glory. As he sings, "The glory of true independence is just to do what you do what you do what you do."
When Black fails, it's because he overreaches--as on the new album's "Uniontown," a weighty song that doesn't quite tap into the power of Black's better material. When his acoustic-based rock songs do connect, though, they shimmer with humanity and resonate with literate depth. One of the best, "Carnival Song," finds an ever-rambling carney philosophizing about the rides on the midway. "I would run the roller coaster/But that just breaks my heart," he sings. "So much hard traveling/Just to wind up where you start."
"Carnival Song" is at least six years old, and Black, a prolific writer, has packed his debut album with songs he's time-tested over the last decade. Many Nashvillians will be familiar with the album's selections: Black resided here for most of the '90s, and he still keeps a Music Row apartment while currently maintaining his primary residence in his hometown of Liberty, Mo.
Fans who've heard Black perform in local clubs over the years will recognize other titles as well: "A Long Way to Go," "Ghosts in the Graveyard," and "That's Just About Right," among others. They'll also be glad to discover how well their favorite tunes have been captured by Black and his collaborators, who include producer Susan Rogers, multi-instrumentalist Greg Wells, and three members of Wilco: drummer Ken Coomer, bassist John Stirratt, and guitarist-keyboardist Jay Bennett.
Black knows the frustration of not expressing himself the way he wants--it's a dilemma he describes memorably in "That's Just About Right," when he sings, "I just can't seem to set my easel to please me/I paint my heaven and it looks like hell." On Birmingham Road, he finds the right partners to help him set his easel just where it should be.
It took him a while to get it right, though. That's another trait Black shares with Kerouac: He went through several frustrating years before the powers-that-be would put out his work--even though many of his peers have been praising him for years as a gifted artist. Just as the '50s beat writer was championed by leading lights in his field, Black has earned the outspoken support of such iconoclastic songwriters as Steve Earle, Iris Dement, John Prine, and Waylon Jennings, among others.
Although Jennings has covered Black's songs, the songwriter's work received even greater exposure after the mainstream country group BlackHawk recorded "That's Just About Right" and "King of the World." These songs sounded refreshing enough on country radio--where "That's Just About Right" became a Top-10 hit--but BlackHawk's versions pale in comparison to Black's own takes. While the hit trio follows stiff Music Row recording conventions, Black comes across as a compelling artist who seeks to break with formulas and find a more suitable rhythmic flow for his words.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, record execs in Nashville considered Black's songs too unusual for their purposes. It wasn't until the Nashville division of Arista Records launched an alternative-music branch, Arista Austin, that the songwriter finally gained a recording contract. As he tells it, though, the company is a good fit--they understand the peculiar requirements of capturing his gift on tape.
More than a year ago, Black began a recording session in Los Angeles with a well-regarded producer and a studio full of top-name studio musicians. But Black felt his music slipping away from him every time he heard the instrumentalists play. "I think that sometimes when someone has been to the mountain, they think that everything they do is great," he says. "And that may be true. But what they do might not be right for a particular artist."
Being a new player in the big leagues, Black at first didn't trust his intuition. As the sessions progressed, he called Arista Austin chief Steve Schnuur. "I told him I needed an objective opinion," the singer says. "He listened to what we had done, and then I got a call saying, 'Let's start over.' I freaked out. I couldn't tell you how happy I was. I knew it wasn't right. I couldn't explain it, but I could hear it and feel it. It really floored me when the record company heard it and thought it wasn't right too."
Intent on making the record the way he wanted to, Black found Susan Rogers while looking over a list of prospective producers. He was impressed by her credentials, which included years as Prince's staff engineer at Paisley Park Studios in Minneapolis. "For me, what really clicked was her intuition and her expertise at interpreting my emotions and my mutant phrasings and musical style," Black says. "The only way I know how to explain something is to play it, and she was able to read me clearly every time."
The musicians proved similarly sympathetic to his cause; Black says he was delighted on a daily basis by what his collaborators came up with. "This is the type of record I always dreamed of making," he says. "At the risk of sounding corny, it's really a sincere musical journey from beginning to end." That sense of discovery comes through in the music, as does a kind of sense of purpose.
One reason Jack Kerouac didn't like being called a beat poet was that he came to believe some of the other beats, especially Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, had become too cynical and too critical of America and its citizenry. Listening to Black sing, it's evident that he shares Kerouac's sense of hope and wonder. Indeed, his songs evoke one of the writer's more memorable lines: "I promise I shall never give up, and that I'll die yelling and laughing."
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