Album Review

Amy LaVere - Runaway's Diary

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There ought to be a law.

I recently sat in with a well-established trio of like-minded musicians, doing both highly regarded originals and numerous covers and, after a while, I was asked if I had a request. Without hesitation I said, "Anything by Townes." It was met with noticeable embarrassment as none of the three knew a single one.

While it may not be necessary for recording artists to include one on an album, Amy LaVere more than complies with that requirement as she does a splendid re-worked cover of "Where I Lead Me" on her gorgeous new album, Runaway's Diary. 

Like Amanda Shires, LaVere uses traditional acoustic music as a starting point, then adds "artfulness"  to further explore and expand her music. Yes, it's about emotion, but what sets LaVere's music apart are the ideas embedded in it. Thus, when you listen to a song more than once, you hear it differently as ideas are not superficial or overtly obvious.

LaVere's music has been called many things: dark and sexy, witty, feisty, breezy, mysterious. She brings all of that on Runaway's Diary. Her 2011 release Stranger Me was SPIN's "Break Up Album of the Year," and the new solo effort may well be year's most memorable road album.

The opener "Rabbit," sets the stage as she recounts a tale of running away from home as an adolescent. Using friend and frequent collaborator Seasick Steve as the inspiration for the title character, this song sets the course for the rest of the album. Road themes naturally emerge: home, belonging, those who wander, those who are lost, and the details of the journey that connects all of it. 

All of this is hauntingly familiar. One of the things I took away from a conversation I had with her in Nashville a couple of years back was how much she loved being on the road, how comfortable it was for her, and how it did not seemed forced or a patronizing cliche. 

In addition to the eight originals, three additional covers are also included to further the "La Strada" narrative: John Lennon ("How?"), Ned Miller ("Dark Moon"), and local Memphis songwriter Mike McCarthy ("Lousy Pretender").  I also like how she wove these less frequently performed songs--especially by by Townes and Lennon--into her theme.

One of last year's true delights was the bopping retro-ish Motel Mirrors--LaVere's duo with John Paul Keith. It was a year that was very busy, not only with constant touring, she also contributed a track to The 78 Project, released a stand alone single and video, and acted in director Brian Pera’s new film, Only Child (2014).  So, when it came time to record her seventh album, LaVere sought out Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars)--friend, musical collaborator and the son of her late mentor and 2007's Anchors & Anvils producer Jim Dickinson--to produce. As he had already worked on folk supergroup the Wandering (with Valerie June, Sharde Thomas, and Shannon McNally) and his first solo album, Rock n' Roll Blues (New West 2014), Dickinson quickly signed on.

"We bonded and began working together in a state of mutual longing to work with my father, Jim, after he passed," Dickinson says. He feels that Runaway's Diary is "a culmination" of LaVere's collaborations with the Dickinson family and calls it "one of the best records I've ever been a part of, both as a musician and a producer."

"Amy's whole life went into this song cycle, from her childhood family dynamic and her own history of running away to growing up on the honkytonk highway and not ever being able to quit running, perpetually moving, giving her life to music and truly becoming the characters she sings about night after night," he says. "She closes her eyes and moves so deeply into and through a song, and it moves me." 

The musicians on the record--including Tim Regan (guitar, piano, organ), Steve Selvidge (guitar), Will Sexton (guitar, BG vocals) Shawn Zorn (drums), George Sluppick, Sam Shoup (Mellotron), Jim Spake (saxophone), Sharde Thomas (drums, BG vocals), Paul Taylor (drums) and Motel Mirrors collaborator John Paul Keith (guitar)--were no strangers to LaVere or Dickinson, and she credits that familiarity with fueling the collaboration.

Runaway's Diary will be released on CD and Vinyl on Archer Records/Thirty Tigers on May 27. LaVere is, of course, on the road. Dates are already booked through summer's end, including a one-off in London.

The stunning opening track, "Rabbit" from Runaway's Diary:

LaVere's track from The 78 Project:

Runaway's Diary's tracks:

1. Rabbit (LaVere)
2. Last Rock n’ Roll Boy to Dance (LaVere)
3. Big Sister (LaVere)
4. Self Made Orphan (LaVere)
5. Where I Lead Me (T. Van Zandt)
6. Snowflake (LaVere)
7. How? (Lennon)
8. Don’t Go Yet John (LaVere)
9. Lousy Pretender (M. McCarthy)
10. Dark Moon (N. Miller)
11. I’ll Be Home Soon (LaVere)
12. Reprise (LaVere)

Musicians include LaVere (bass, lead vocals) Luther Dickinson (guitar, mandolin), Tim Reagan (guitar, piano, organ), Steve Selvidge (guitar), Will Sexton (guitar, BG vocals) Shawn Zorn (drums), George Sluppick, Sam Shoup (Mellotron), Jim Spake (saxophone), Sharde Thomas (drums, BG vocals) and Paul Taylor (drums).

The video of LaVere's 2013 single, "This Bridge:"

Photos by Crackerfarm and Monty Shane, courtesy of the artist.