“Hi Gretchen, it’s Malcolm. I did an interview with you a while back. I know. It seems an age ago. I seem to recall we talked about how the weather in Nashville was pretty much like we’d expect in Manchester. I know. It’s been gorgeous today, hasn’t it? And it’s lovely to finally meet face to face. All five of you were on top form tonight.
“I probably said too much back then about relating to ‘Love that Makes a Cup of Tea’, and how I was heading back up the motorway from my Mum’s funeral when I heard that for a third time, truly listening for the first time. I wrote in her eulogy, ‘She was always there for us, however far away we lived, and on returning there’d be a home-cooked meal on the table and home-baked cake in the tin. She’d be at the end of the phone too, offering help and advice, whatever the problem. And there would be offers of cash, however well you thought you were doing. We also learned what a great listener she was.’ Consequently, that chorus reduced me to tears … happy tears.
“I’ve just spoken briefly to Kim, but think I babbled somewhat, so please let her know her short set was pretty much perfect. And the harmonies between you, Barry and Kim were spot on. I told her how much she’ll enjoy your trip to Shetland, even though I’ve never been. I think she realised though. A look passed between us, me silently saying, ‘I’m talking out of my arse here, please excuse me’, her politely responding, ‘I know, but it’s okay. That’s how it goes in these situations.’
“We particularly liked her song about boxes, smoke and mirrors, and how when you get to know people better, you realise they’re not who you thought they were. ‘Chinese Boxes’? That’s it, with a real Suzanne Vega vibe. And whether she’s singing about driving down the interstate (‘Those Words We Said’) or rivers running dry (‘Every River Runs Dry’), I can equate with that. We have roads and waterways here too. Oh, you knew. You’re probably better travelled around here than most Brits.
“Kim mentioned how the poignant ‘Pin a Rose’ was written with Chuck Prophet, taking me back to first hearing bands like Green on Red, REM and The Long Ryders, realising that gap across the Atlantic wasn’t as wide as I imagined. Sticking with her Edgeland material, I’ve never actually got to ‘Chase Wild Horses’, but understand the sentiment. We’ve all done spur-of-the-moment stuff, some ‘we ain’t proud of’. It’s all part of what makes us who we are. And the fact that I’d never considered until the wistful ‘Your Dear John’ that there might be bargemen in Ohio just shows my ignorance of the true America. Music’s always been an education though.
“Finally, that song about counting on me and crooked miles was exquisite, not least those chord sequences. It‘s always nice to go somewhere you weren’t expecting. ‘Straight as the Crow Flies’? Right. I could hear Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’, but shades of Nick Drake too. A winning combination.
“I loved your intro, that wondrous voice cutting the air in the darkness. The power in that almost-whispered introduction defied belief. Simple, stripped down, evocative, you name it. I had a lump in the throat as you sang, ‘I get lost in my hometown …’ It’s beautiful on record, and tonight all the more so. I may have mentioned, but the imagery in ‘Arguing With Ghosts’ and right across this new album is really something. And here was the proof.
“I see ‘Wichita’ is your new single. Good choice. Say hello to Barry for me, by the way. I’ll probably rudely interrupt his conversation and shakes hands before darting off in a few minutes. I’m sure he’ll be very gracious, while thinking, ‘Who was that guy?’ He’s amazing on piano and accordion, isn’t he? I really enjoyed ‘The Matador’, again truly brought to life here, not least through Conor McCreanor’s double bass. The sound was amazing too. Hats off to the technicians. I was here exactly a year ago to see Canada’s Ron Sexsmith and Lori Cullen, and similarly impressed.
“And ‘Blackbirds’? I listened to that album coming into Manchester rather than the new LP, which I’ve been playing a lot lately. And on that track there’s a real kind of Steve Earle and latter-day Johnny Cash edge. When you finally addressed the crowd, I can’t speak for the rest, but like to think we were all with you when you mentioned these defining moments back home over the last couple of years, and how none were for the better.
“Similarly, ‘Truckstop Angel’ follows that ‘Blackbirds’ formula, again to great effect, your Belfast lad, Colm McClean, coming into his own on lead guitar. ‘Knopfler-esque’, I wrote. That whole dynamic between you and him reminded me of Mark and Emmylou Harris on All This Roadrunning.
“My second ‘hairs-on-the-back-of-my-neck’ moment came with ‘The Boy From Rye’. I guess it’s written about a US location, but could easily relate to a pebble beach setting on our South Coast. There’s the power of great songwriting in a nutshell – that ability to ensure the listener empathises with the subject. And so beautifully delivered. I wrote ‘bare and tender’. I think I know what I meant. And again … that imagery.
“You talked some more about your homeland, and that call to your Mum after Trump was elected. I know how that conversation goes. I felt it over here after this Government somehow got in again, and after the Brexit vote. I too struggle to recognise my country sometimes. But for all our concerns, it seems all the worse there. How the hell can people be so blind and deaf to all that? What made them think it would be a good idea to elect such an arse?
“You mentioned wondering if that’s how it felt for your folks in 1939, ‘54 and ‘68, searching for assurances when sometimes there can’t be any. Yet we have to stay positive. If nothing else, this past year’s reawakening makes me believe better days are ahead. People seem to recognise what they’ve unwittingly unleashed. Here’s to a wind of change. Take Ireland this last week, for example.
“Never mind ‘arguing with ghosts’, I think you exorcised a few with ‘Lowlands’. There was anger and bitterness, and grief and concern for the future, but all wonderfully measured. That line about the neighbour with the sticker on his bumper making you see him in a whole new light really resonates. I could feel the energy and feeling you put in back in row J. And those harmonies on ‘Say Grace’, and the guitars complementing each other.
“I could say the same about ‘Dancing with the Beast’. I heard you talk about that on the radio. I saw it as a song about an abuser. It hadn’t occurred to me that the beast might be depression, making the line, ‘He don’t like my friends or my family’ all the more sublime.
“I’ve said before I don’t do country, and ‘Disappearing Act’ has the hallmarks, yet it’s the right side of country. I’ll stick with the Americana label. And seeing the Queen of Country Noir live, those more earthy qualities shine through. If anything, it’s more blues, which is alright by me. Besides, Barry’s New Orleans piano touches, Conor’s bass, and Colm’s guitar underline that.
“Tom Russell’s ‘Guadalupe’ is so evocative, like taking ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’ to the Baja California peninsula. Barry’s accordion flourishes are glorious, and again the vocal interplay is stunning. In contrast, ‘When All You Got is a Hammer’ saw you all really let rip. It should have seen the audience on their feet, but it wasn’t the right venue or crowd for that. I won’t dwell on that, but a few of us were bringing the average age down. I’m not being rude. A lot of those assembled probably had more youth in them than audiences half their age, but there was little chance of Springsteen-like stage-diving.
“Much as I’ve heard ‘On a Bus to St Cloud’, it grabbed me more than ever. Perhaps live, I understand the structure better, your County Down bandmate reverting to double bass. I was reminded of Boo Hewerdine’s songcraft. You have that same ability to write and deliver such great songs. ‘Five Minutes’ was another that truly came to life, the characterisation so real that we could really empathise, my better half and I thinking ahead to our eldest daughter heading to uni later this year, dwelling on past arguments with loved ones over the years, and how everything can change in next to no time.
“I see ‘Idlewild’ in the ‘Lowlands’ bracket. So powerful. You tell us you’re not a protest singer, but the punch packed with your stories is so strong. This is personal-political. ‘The day JFK was killed’ recollections are rarely as moving all these years on. Although I know it’s coming, the N-word still makes me flinch, but truly conveys the horror. Again, there’s that sense that we just don’t learn from our mistakes.
“When you returned, after all those wondrous sad songs, your Mickey Newbury cover, ‘Why You Been Gone So Long?’, was nothing short of a celebration, the band truly letting their hair down. Again I felt a need to get up and dance, joining the honky-tonk carnival.
“And after that joyful, bonding moment, we had the most delicate of encores, your solo, unamplified take on ‘Love That Makes a Cup of Tea’.
‘And there is love that makes a cup of tea,
Asks you how you’re doing, and listens quietly.
Slips you twenty dollars when your rent’s behind
That’s the kind of love I hope you find.’
“You stood there with acoustic guitar in the heart of the first two rows. Personal, intimate, heartfelt, emotional … all the above. Thanks Gretchen, that was a truly special night.”
Dedicated to anyone who ever stood in line to talk to the main act after a show, not quite conveying what was on their mind, instead talking gibberish, the moment soon gone, leaving you kicking yourselves for a missed opportunity.
For my Alternative Nashville Skyline feature/interview with Gretchen, from May 4th, head here.
To snap up tickets for the remaining dates on the UK tour, with support from Kim Richey, and various festival dates, try this Facebook link. You can also keep in touch via Twitter. To order Dancing with the Beast, try this Proper Records link. To find out more about Kim Richey’s new LP, Edgeland, and her back-catalogue, try her Bandcamp, Facebook, Twitter and website pages.