Black Music Matters Festival

Mark Erelli: Not your typical honky tonker

By John Lupton, March 2004

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With an ironic laugh, he tells of appearing on a local country radio show recently. "(The host) knew I was more ' of a folk singer, and he said, 'You can come and play in the studio, but don't play any folk songs.' He had great intentions, but he was incredibly misguided as to what folk music was. Anytime you have limited exposure to a genre, it's pretty easy to make a snap judgment about liking or not liking it."

Erelli didn't so much find his voice as a country writer and singer, he relates, as it found him while he was recording his self-titled 1999 debut.

"I was listening to a lot of Willie Nelson one day, and this song ('I Always Return') just came out. It was a completely different approach at the time. I was in the middle of recording this song, and I played it at a show...(Signature Sounds head) Jim Olsen was there, and he said 'Is that going to be on the record?', and I said, 'Well, no, I just wrote it, I have to learn it and play it out, road-test it.' He said, 'No, I really think you should put it on the record, it's really good.' So that was really kind of the first classic-sounding 'country' song that I ever wrote, and by accident, it made it onto the first record."

Suburban kid or not, listening to Erelli talk about just what country music really is reveals the depth of understanding of the music that drives "Hillbilly Pilgrim".

"'Country and Western' doesn't even exist hardly anymore in a popular scale. It's pretty much all mainstream 'pop-country', and there aren't too many big Western stars on the national level like there used to be. Guys like Hank Thompson and Bob Wills were national heroes at the time. I think the reason that jazz got attached to them, in a way, after the fact - if it wasn't happening while they were around so much - is that when you think of jazz, it kind of connotes a more serious, higher degree of musicianship than just strumming out three chords and singing little folk and country songs. I love three-chord songs, I write and sing many myself, but these guys had a level of musicianship and improvisational skills, that I think they could have hung with any jazz player of the day."

He's been surprised - though delighted - to find that of the album's 11 tracks, "A Bend In The River" seems to be the one that people keep asking him about. It's a song about the WalMart-ization of small town America that crystallized for him while driving home late one night.

"I was traveling back home from a gig in the western part of Massachusetts, and there's a stretch of road between Williamstown...and Greenfield, along Route 2 West, and you pass a lot of these little, kind of Podunk towns that are along the Deerfield River. It just kind of solidified a lot of what I'd been thinking about, seeing small towns driving around this country, and seeing things change and us lose certain characteristics of local color and local flavor, before I think we really knew they were being lost. It happened so fast. It's still out there, but you gotta really search for it, and the loss of that to the kind of corporate chain franchise 'big box' store kind of culture...for some reason is just really interesting to me."

On "Troubadour Blues," Erelli pays tribute to songwriting heroes that include not only well-known names like Williams and Van Zandt, but also late friend Dave Carter, whose premature death from a heart attack in July 2002 stunned the folk music community, and "Hillbilly Pilgrim" carries a dedication to him.

"(Dave) was just brilliant with lyrics. He was certainly the best songwriter that I'll ever know, personally. I think he's just one of the giants, in my mind. You can talk about Dylan and Townes Van Zandt and Dave Carter, really, all in the same breath. I don't make any distinction, I think it's only just a matter of who came along at what time. I felt particularly supported and encouraged by him. I know I had some doubts in my mind at first about whether this was an album I could pull off, and I know that he would have said to me, 'You should do it.' I wanted to make sure that I threw his name in there in the same breath as some of these musical giants, if for no other reason than to have people say, 'I know who all those other people are, who's Dave Carter?', and maybe they'd find his music."Doing "Hillbilly Pilgrim" as a labor of love has been rewarding.

"For a kid from New England to believably carry it off, that feels like a big accomplishment to me. I'm very glad that people feel the same, because if I had any concern, it was exactly that - are people gonna really believe this, coming from me? It seems like, so far, they are."