Amy Allison - A walking contradiction
"Maybe I do tend to concentrate on the more miserable aspects of life in my work," says Amy Allison, "but it's a thrill when you have a good idea for a song, and you're doing it, and communicating. I have really good experiences performing live, with people really responding. They laugh, in spite of themselves -- and they're not looking at me like I don't make sense!" Which only underscores that Allison has been a performer some have found easy to misunderstand. Her music explores the feelings of the misused, disheartened and smart, yet is peppered with knowing humor amidst the melancholy. Her songs work the stuff of hard country, though they come from the heart of New York -- and generally sound like it, too. "Why would I write songs in the dialect of a place I'm not from?" she asks, reasonably enough. "But if you look at me and it looks incongruous to you -- if it's, 'Her? What is she doing?' -- well, so much the better." Allison's music, delivered in an accurate but singular voice writers have tripped over themselves trying to describe, spans a space where heartfelt country simplicity and the sophisticated directness of the downtown nightclub chanteuse meet. It's all held together by the quirky spins and twists of real wit. These elements are, of course, an offbeat combination that can add up to "cult performer." Toss in what had been at least some skittishness about getting out on the road and pushing the songs in unknown territory, and the inherent shyness of the woman, and it's no surprise if you haven't yet encountered her music firsthand. Even though Amy Allison has been out there following her muse for some fifteen years now. You may well know one or two of her songs ("The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter" or "Cheater's World", for instance) or her more rock-oriented work with Ryan Hedgecock under the duo name Parlor James. With the fall release of Sad Girl, her first new collection in five years, on Diesel Only in the United States (following its earlier release on Glitterhouse in Europe), the level of awareness of her music may be about to change. The disc's twelve tracks exhibit a directness of expression, a simple universality clearly achieved with considerable composing and life experience, that should attract new listeners, as well as increased attention from other singers as potent and very singer-serviceable material. That would be a family tradition. As even one-liner bios will remind you, Amy is the daughter of Mose Allison, the legendary Mississippi-raised singer who himself defies standard expectations and commercial categories, bringing jazz fluidity to Delta blues. He's best-known in rock circles for collaborations with Van Morrison and for writing "Young Man Blues", heard worldwide on The Who's Live At Leeds. If Mose indeed started out plowing behind mules and picking cotton, he'd long since graduated from Louisiana State and taken the family north and into the comfortable confines of Smithtown, Long Island, when his daughter came along. "Sometimes I feel I have roots, schmoots," she says now. "In my case it's like, well, I went to the mall." If she was the funny one in the high school chorus, the one who could crack them up with the dead-on opera singer or Tom Jones imitations, she was also developing some tough standards for what was acceptable in singing. And not because, as some might imagine, Muddy Waters or Peggy Lee were stopping in to see the family. "There was music around the house," she acknowledges, but explains that "my Dad was really into classical stuff, mostly 20th-century -- Ives and Bartok." Yet there was also exposure to the Deep South during long summer stays with the family back in Mississippi. When she started writing songs while attending college at Oberlin, in Ohio, country music was very much in the air on local radio. As she's told several interviewers over the years, her serious interest and delight in twang seems to have stemmed from an appearance by Loretta Lynn on the old Mike Douglas Show. "I liked it that she was such a sweetheart, and yet she sang so straight. No affect at all. There was maybe a familiarity about it, because I hung around down in Mississippi among women. But gee -- it might have been Joey Heatherton on there!" She was back in New York by 1986, and married young. Her guitar-playing husband of the time and his office co-worker, guitarist Rob Meador, who still plays with Allison, began recording some of her earliest country-influenced songs, including "I Was Born In New York City, But I'm A Country Girl At Heart". When a tape reached Ellie Coven, who ran (in a sign of things to come) the downtown New York performance space Dixon Heights, Amy and her group, dubbed the Maudlins, were booked in a day. Was what she started right there a nonstandard career in, of all things, country music? Is that, despite everything, what she has been doing? "Well...yeah!" she replies, if after a long pause. "I don't even think about it anymore, because it's what I've been doing so long that it's just sort of mine. When I listen to it, I don't really think it really sounds country, but a lot of other people do -- and it should to an extent, because that's a lot of what my songwriting style is." Even back then, the New York alternative country scene, bumping as it sometimes will into the more general black shirt downtown music scene, was made up of musicians as closely-knit and supportive of each other as they are in the best sides of Austin or Nashville. Allison's first national exposure would be through guest appearances on more established artists' records -- a duet with Walter Salas-Humara on the Silos' 1990 big-label shot, an appearance on They Might Be Giants' 1992 release Apollo 18. On her own, she placed "Cheater's World" on one of Diesel Only's famed Rig Rock compilations, largely made up of contributors from the New York alt-country scene. And there were live appearances on fellow songstress Laura Cantrell's New York radio show, long before Cantrell recorded Allison's "The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter". "I first saw Amy in 1989 at Nightingale's on Second Avenue in Manhattan, a dive that bands like Blues Traveler and the Spin Doctors played at a lot, in some of their first gigs," Cantrell remembers. "There was no stage, you played right on the floor in front of a mirrored wall facing a bar. I was a real purist and was very wary of an attitude in New York that country music was kitsch, and when I saw the band name, the Maudlins, I was prepared for the worst. "But amidst these overgrown boys kind of gently playing their instruments, Amy stood, wearing some kind of country girl outfit and with that unique twang in her voice. She had a song in her set, 'Walking To The End of The World'. It was just this sad song about a jilted girl, and it had such a pretty melody that it just immediately stuck in my mind. That's what often happens with Amy's songs -- they just stick around." Which is not to say that her early supporters thought they had a new Loretta Lynn on their hands. Besides her refusal to write in a below-the-Mason-Dixon regional style that would have been false for her, there was the matter of what that distinctive and often so affecting Amy Allison singing style actually sounds like. From her earliest performing days, Allison has had to live with reactions to her low vibrato as alleged Big Apple nasality. It's what some wouldn't hesitate to call one of the great Whines of New York, with automatic comparisons to familiar versions from the mouths of such fictional TV caricatures as Fran Drescher's "The Nanny" or the "Janice" character from "Friends". "Some of the descriptions are like, WHOOOAAA! I probably have the best collection of them of anybody," Allison says of the attempts that have been made to identify her voice. "But this is not an act. It's just how I sound. There are some people with voices intentionally weird, and some people may even like that now because there's a precedent for it; it's become familiar. But I'm just singing. If you have something that really sounds kind of new, people don't know what to make of it sometimes; when somebody sounds different, some people are all over it." On the other hand, they don't mistake you for anybody else. Allison agrees that one reason she's been looked at as an "alternative" act over the years is precisely the obvious difference in sound from what you could hear on the Opry. But that very difference has no doubt also been important in attracting the audience she's had. One of the central themes in Allison's lyrics surely speaks to that audience (and others) on this very matter -- getting permission to take emotions straight. The whiskey, for instance, may allow the not-so-sweet to seem sweeter; and those who find feelings hard to say out loud might do so if slightly hazy -- in the maudlin zone. The band's name is not for nothing. What's problematic for Allison is any notion that, with this New York sound, she must be "smug," or that she could be mocking country music, pop music, or any part of their diverse audience. That mistake has some family history, too, since the witty Mose Allison is often said to be ironic by half-hearing critics. "My Dad doesn't write like that," she insists. "All that stuff about him being all cool and ironic -- listen to his songs! They're mostly straightforward and beautiful, about real life." That was the musical approach his daughter would go after as well. But the first collection under her own name, The Maudlin Years, did not appear until 1996 (on Koch Records), and included some demos going back ten years. Such songs as "Garden State Mall" and "Holding The Baby" (feisty as a Loretta number) joined "Whiskey" and "Cheaters" and "Walking" to establish a unique songwriter to be reckoned with. Elvis Costello would list the disc as one of his 500 favorite records of all-time in a Vanity Fair article. Good as the singing and playing was, Allison admits, it was also a style evolving in public, however careful she was about releasing material. "I don't finish songs unless they're keepers, which is why I'm not quite as prolific as I'd want to be," she says. The irony was that, after the long wait, The Maudlin Years was upstaged somewhat by the near-simultaneous release of a quick EP (and later a full album) from a side project, Parlor James. Formed when Allison met Ryan Hedgecock (who'd left Lone Justice and moved from Los Angeles to New York) at a Mercury Lounge songwriter's night, they produced material that included extended, original narrative rockers they wrote or grabbed out of the folk tradition, including an inventive rendition of "My Darling Clementine". Parlor James gave Allison a chance to do something with her longstanding love of the tragic ballads of traditional acts such as the Blue Sky Boys, in a new context. Comparisons made to Fairport Convention or even the Blood Oranges may have been no more to-the-point than "there's some folk material, it rocks, and here's a girl." But there was a more familiar sound, and, briefly, big-label backing from Sire that got Parlor James touring as the Maudlins never have. Thus, many rock fans know her primarily from those efforts. Hedgecock has since returned to Los Angeles and movie work; more from Parlor James appears unlikely, if not impossible. Meanwhile, Allison has become a popular fixture on the New York club scene, in a variety of settings. This summer, she could be seen in a "New York Ladies of Honky Tonk" review at the Mercury Lounge along with Cantrell and organizer Elena Skye; playing a late-night acoustic set with guitarist Mark Spencer at 9C; and at the Downtime's "Buck Off" salute to Buck Owens featuring New York's top twang artists, cooing her languid versions of "Only You" and "In The Palm Of Your Hand". No one hearing those could imagine there's the slightest smugness in her views of straight country music. As a band, the Maudlins have sharpened into a very practiced unit, with regular appearances around New York and the stray performance at SXSW or in Nashville. They now included Rob Meador on guitar, ex-Ghost Rocket Bob Hoffnar on pedal steel and dobro, Charlie Shaw on drums, and Art Baguer on bass. Sad Girl, like its predecessor, was long in coming together and made with multiple producers. Five Maudlins cuts are supplemented by a couple recorded with Spencer; four others were culled from sessions with Jim Scott in Los Angeles featuring such practiced pros as Neal Casal, Greg Leisz, Don Heffington and Bob Glaub. Allison says the Los Angeles experience was thrilling -- and simple. "I had a little boom box, and these guys listened to my demos and they got it down, and that was it," she marvels. "I have such a specific sound and feel to what I do that I think no matter who you've got playing, it's going to have some of that -- but they were very sensitive to it, and really listened." The production history may be complex, but Sad Girl holds together as a single offering that shows Allison's writing in a pared down and yet more potent new style -- more "honed," she agrees. There is a balancing of country songwriting approaches, and even elements of pop-based, New York chanteuse cabaret songcraft. The opener, "Listless And Lonesome", is a standout new example of Allison's touch: "You...promised the moon and the stars/And showed me the inside of bars." The dark "New Year's Eve" takes that moment of waiting just before the Times Square ball drops and imagines it as a lifestyle. The low and slow numbers "It's Not Wrong" and "Do I Miss You" would be at home in a late-night bar on Lower Broadway -- New York's, or Nashville's. "Amy doesn't stint on those gritty details that make a song or a character in a song interesting and real," Cantrell observes. "She has a way of making the emotions of a song, the longing, regret or joyous feelings, very real and honest. A song like 'The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter' is just a classic -- a rare, honest alcohol song from a girl's point of view. The images are sort of funny, a woman downing this drink, but it also perfectly captures that self-deluding moment where your wits abandon you. "On Sad Girl, the same quality is present. The song 'Family' is a good example of that balance of humor and pathos: 'Who gives you life/Who gives you hell/Who makes you sick/Who makes you well.' And who hasn't experienced that?" The new songs show her appreciation for the polished, professional songwriting traditions of both country and pop, both sad and funny, finished and universally simple, not drearily confessional or rambling or navel-gazing -- and uniformly potent. They should prove rich fodder for other performers. "I haven't gone to Nashville, taken meetings and like that; but maybe I should!" she says. "I am going to try. The first time I looked at that I was told I was too 'left of center,' but with things like the Dixie Chicks doing that 'Earl' song, that's supposed to be good again. I'd like to see them do "Listless And Lonesome". Reba McEntire could do my songs, in Nashville, or on Broadway. Or her cabaret act! I saw her in Annie Get Your Gun and she was terrific." "I've always been a sad girl," the title song declares, "since the day I was born, I've been oh so forlorn." But that's the singer in a very professional piece of songwriting, not to be entirely confused with the writer. "I am pretty much a sad girl," Allison adds face to face. "It's sort of a temperament thing. But on the other hand, I'm very passionate about things; I get really enthralled. And my friends say that I'm the one who wears the cap and bells! Maybe they're the tears of a clown." ND contributing editor Barry Mazor has been tracking rural music and such from an urban home base since the 1970s.