Thursday, August 13, 2009

Nancy Apple’s Song Slinger Showdown, Part 1

This DVD showed up on my doorstep probably over a year ago, and promptly fell through the cracks. I’m glad I finally did dig it out from the pile, because there’s some very worthwhile and enjoyable music on this disc.
The DVD documents what is apparently a monthly event in Memphis, a song-swap between Nancy Apple and a few other acoustic singer-songwriters. On this particular night in October 2007, she was joined by Phil Lee and Jake Kelly. Apple acts as host, in a format which is reminiscent of the Texas songwriter showcases which were an occasional, yet significant feature of “Austin City Limits”, back in the days when ACL was an outlet for artists who were better-known in Texas than elsewhere, rather than a hype-machine for pop stars.
ACL’s songwriter showcases had more artists per show, but this three-artist format gives each artist the opportunity to show varied aspects of their repertoire. Apple sings a song, Lee sings one, Kelly sings one; and then the process repeats (though Kelly only gets three songs, as opposed to four for the others). In between songs, the three artists sit at a diner-style booth and swap anecdotes. The whole affair is very informal, occasionally a bit too much so, which leads to a few empty moments between songs that may make you wish they’d get back to singing. Fortunately, they do.
Stylistically, the approach of all three artists might be termed “non-commercial country music”, though the fact that they all play acoustic guitars (Apple plays accordion textures on one song, while the other two also blow harmonicas when appropriate) will slant this more toward the contemporary-folk singer-songwriter audience than to modern-day pop-country fans. Nancy Apple can be as hard-core-country as Loretta Lynn, but without the Nashville production, and with a hint or two of rock around the edges. Phil Lee, “The Mighty King of Love” conjures up what Bob Dylan might have sounded like in the 1960’s if he’d had a sense of humor. Jake Kelly has a distinctively thin, high-pitched voice, which I’m unable to compare to anyone, though his writing makes me think of John Prine in a way I can’t pin down. In other words, he’s an original – but then, all three artists are when you get down to it.
If you’re a fan of Texas singer-songwriters, and wonder why there aren’t any artists working in related styles in other parts of the country, well of course there are. Indeed, there are a whole lot of them. They simply don’t get the publicity they deserve. Nancy Apple, Phil Lee, and Jake Kelly are just three of the many worthy artists playing acoustic guitars, writing fine songs, and reaping few of the rewards which should be coming their way. Their names may not be familiar, but they should be heard and, as in this case, seen.


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