Love Is Strange
By Bill Friskics-Warren
OCTOBER 6, 1997: When Lonesome Bob thunders, "My mother's husband is a pretty good guy/They were lovers since before my daddy died," you sit up and take notice. When he adds, "I don't wanna know what they do at night/I know he loves her and he treats her right," you know for sure that you've happened onto a complex moral universe. Tim Carroll's guitar solo only stabs home the point.
In the song's next two stanzas, Lonesome describes his relationships with a homeless woman and with a lover. "I've got a girlfriend but we're not in love," he sings, referring to the latter. "We don't lift each other up to heaven above/We like each other and we don't like pain/We try to keep each other sane/It's not some complex psychological dynamic/It's just that loneliness is so much more problematic."
"My Mother's Husband" is hardly an anomaly on Things Fall Apart, Lonesome Bob's solo debut for the Chicago-based Checkered Past label. From "Waltzing on the Titanic" and "What Went Wrong" to a handful of other originals, the album depicts one ill-fated liaison after another. Regardless of how nobly the men and women in Lonesome's songs struggle to sustain intimacy, things always seem to, well, fall apart.
As with most good tragedy, these anti-love songs portray sympathetic yet flawed characters who encounter circumstances beyond their control. Sometimes this breeds desperation, as with the two lovers in "The Plans We Made" who, burning with desire for each other, do away with their spouses, only to face the death penalty together.
Lonesome Bob acknowledges country music's darker side as a major influence on his songwriting. "There's a very rich tradition of dysfunction and violence and mayhem in country music," he observes. "And that's the stuff that always spoke to me and touched me most deeply. The happy stuff never really did it for me. `He Stopped Loving Her Today'--that's what reaches inside me and makes me respond." Lonesome would doubtless relate just as well to the early work of Johnny Paycheck, whose mid-'60s albums featured such titles as "(Pardon Me) I've Got Someone to Kill" and "He's in a Hurry (To Get Home to My Wife)."
Interestingly enough, Lonesome Bob, who was born Robert Gordon Chaney, listened mainly to AM radio growing up during the '60s in Mount Ephraim, N.J., a suburb of Camden. It wasn't until he picked up a guitar at age 17 that he gave much thought to his father's Hank Williams and George Jones records.
"When I started to write songs," Lonesome recalls, "what came out was the country music that I'd been listening to--or, rather, that my father had been listening to--my whole life. At first, it felt like that scene in The Exorcist where the young priest has Regan by the throat and he's going, `Take me! Take me!' And the devil takes him, and he screams, `No!' and he throws himself out the window. Well, I was writing country songs, and I was like `No!' Eventually, though, I grew to love it."
Although the music on Lonesome Bob's debut at times evokes Johnny Cash ("Someone Watching Over Me") and the classic Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard ("What Went Wrong"), it's more alternative country-rock than traditional honky-tonk. Along with Lonesome's first-rate songwriting, the immediacy of the performances on Things Fall Apart nonetheless distinguishes the album from most alt-country records, which too often and too easily wed hillbilly instrumentation with post-punk indifference.
Things Fall Apart boasts some of Nashville's finest, if relatively unsung, instrumentalists: Tim Carroll and Bill Dwyer on lead guitar, Dave Jacques and Dave Francis on bass, and Mark Horn and Rick Schell on drums. The record's power stems largely from these players' emotional commitment to Lonesome's material, and as the singer points out, this visceral quality is a far cry from the sterile professionalism of the studio musicians who spend their weekdays working tens, twos, and sixes on Music Row.
"You get these hot-shit studio guys who do this all day long," Lonesome observes, referring to the pick-by-the-numbers pros who play on most commercial country sessions. "They know what they're gonna play before they even hear the song. The guys that played on my record actually listen to the song first. They don't just come up with parts--they make contributions."
Even more distinctive than the inspired guitar work of Carroll and Dwyer are the impassioned vocals of Allison Moorer, who sings on 11 of the record's 13 tracks. Moorer, who is Shelby Lynne's younger sister, won't be part of Lonesome's band much longer, having recently signed a record deal with MCA. While Lonesome concedes that she's irreplaceable, he nonetheless insists that a female voice is integral to the psychology inherent in his material.
"My songs are basically about relationships with women," he says. "Hearing a female voice in there creates a greater sense of intimacy. It creates the impression that the woman singing--in this case, Allison--is the other person in the song. `Why can't somebody tell me what went wrong?' When two voices sing those lines, it sounds like both of those people are asking why the relationship fell apart.
" `Waltzing on the Titanic' is another example. It's about a very specific moment in a relationship, about two people being alone together. I didn't want a lot of harmony in the song. I wanted two people singing on the chorus, because it's those two people singing at that moment. It just wouldn't be the same if it was a guy singing those lyrics."
This interplay of male and female voices, coupled with the odd turns of Lonesome Bob's narratives, brings to mind Mickey & Sylvia's 1957 single, "Love Is Strange"--not so much the song's sexy contents as its gender dynamic and the sentiment of its title. And just as "Love Is Strange" assumed greater poignancy from the fact that Mickey & Sylvia were a real-life couple, Lonesome Bob's stories of love gone awry hit harder because they draw from personal experience.
"Love has just ended up being a really twisted thing in my life," he admits. "There's been a lot of joy. But a hell of a lot of pain has come from it too." In the end, perhaps the most amazing thing about Things Fall Apart is that Lonesome Bob portrays these encounters with such humor, compassion, and insight.
Lonesome Bob plays a record-release party Oct. 7 at Billy Block's Western Beat Roots Revival at Zanies Comedy Showplace.
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