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Eliza Gilkyson explores the land of milk and honey

By Rick Teverbaugh, May 2004

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After seeing the photo, she was moved to write the gut-wrenching "Tender Mercies." "It is about what every mother wants for her kids," says Gilkyson. "Kids are dying for industrial reasons, due to the war machine and due to poverty."

She takes a strong stance against the war in Iraq for "Hiway 9," which opens the disc. Not all of the reaction has been positive. "I've been getting some hate mail," she says. "Some think that I've gotten too political. But I feel like it is important for me to speak out so others will feel like they can speak out. I think people who feel the way I do are being bullied. They are being accused of being unpatriotic. Though it has become more acceptable now that more and more of the truth has come out about our reasons for getting involved."

One song that fit very well into the album's landscape is an old Woody Guthrie tune titled "Peace Call." It was written between 1951 and 1953, sent to a publisher and then didn't come up for air again until 1963 when it was published in a Woody Guthrie songbook. It has never been recorded until now.

"I was hanging out with Jimmy LaFave and Slaid Cleaves on the Woody Guthrie spoken word and song tour," recalls Gilkyson. "We were invited to view the archives of his songs. He wrote a 1,000 songs, but only a few hundred have ever been recorded."

When she found "Peace Call," it was an unbelievable opportunity. "It was an undiscovered treasure," she says. "I wanted to find something that would fit. The melody was already there as well. I couldn't believe nobody had done it."

Guthrie had been an important voice in her musical upbringing. She read the biography "Bound to Glory." She loved his ranting, stream-of-consciousness style. But she didn't share his rough, rural upbringing. So she needed to adapt the song to her own style.

One of the ways she decided to do that was to call upon friends Patty Griffin, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Iris DeMent for vocal assistance. "Each is a very dear friend of mine," she says. "All of them loved the idea of being on it."

The logistics of getting it all together was a bit more difficult. "All of them were working on their own records," says Gilkyson. "Patty is the only one who lives where I do. The vocals were recorded in different studios at different times. But it all worked out great. It sounds like we were all in the same room at the same time."

Adding to the pleasure of the new disc is the inclusion of daughter Delia and son Cisco Ryder in the mix as both instrumentalists and vocalists.

Early this year, Gilkyson was inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame to join with people like Willie Nelson, Nancy Griffith, Butch Hancock and Joe Ely. "I was completely surprised and flattered that my hometown thinks of me that way," she says.

Her music is mostly unheard on the radio. The only format that really seems to pay much attention to her work is Americana, where her new outing was perched at number 25 on a recent chart.

"It is a broad genre in some way," says Gilkyson. "Certainly my music isn't as country as some in that genre. But it is natural-sounding and an organic production. That music will always survive. It does satisfy a large enough group that it will always find its way. That is one of the genres that will always be heard. In mainstream music, there are a lot of things that never worked for me. It is vapid and pervasive and degrading to women in a lot of ways. I like the path I'm on. I have some beautiful fellow travelers. It is a more interesting way to go about it."

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