"Kansas" / Fred J. Eaglesmith
Here's another thing the internet is good for; occasionally on a message board or music site you hear tell of musicians who're never gonna get played on the radio--not even Sirius or XM--who're never gonna be nominated for a Grammy or a CMA, or interviewed in the New York Times. And provided the recommendation comes from someone whose taste you trust, you know you have to follow it up.
So thanks to my Kinks friend Jim (a.k.a. Nappers) for dropping the word about Fred Eaglesmith. That rattled around in my brainpan for a few weeks, until by chance I was offered a album of his to review for Blogcritics.org -- not even a new release, but his 2006 CD Milly's Cafe. The first time I put that baby on my CD player, I was just blown away. So how come Steve Earle gets all the press and this guy gets none?
This is a whole album full of lonesome-highway songs, ballads about forgotten Americans, done in an exquisitely worn and scrubbed alt.country style. "Kansas" in particular has the light touch of a true master: the whole thing's just a guitar, a bare whisper of drums, and a particularly effective Dobro. About fifty percent of the lyrics of this song consist of the line "It's always Kansas" repeated over and over, but if you think that's lazy songwriting, you are completely wrong. Playing up the creaky, weary edges of his voice, Eaglesmith is taking on a character here--a guy who's inarticulate in the first place, and numb with heartbreak on top of that. I don't know about you, but I'd be suspicious of any guy who could spin fine phrases in the middle of that kind of grief.
Have any of you ever driven across Kansas? Well, I have, and I know just what Eaglesmith's talking about here. The yawning emptiness of a straight-shot west Kansas highway is exactly where all the thoughts you're trying not to think will catch up with you. As he remarks in the second verse, "Those sad sad songs / On the radio, in the jukebox in the truck stops / They don't bother me, you know / I can face the day / I can walk away / I can tell myself I'm gonna be okay." That's how it works, all right; for a while you're keeping it together, you're proud of yourself. And then you let your guard down, and suddenly you're a mess all over again.
Or as Fred puts it, "It's always Kansas / That's where I fall apart / That's where my broken heart / Catches up with the news." That seems to me an pretty astute insight into human psychology--that gap between knowing something and accepting it can be HUGE. As T.S. Eliot once wrote, "Humankind cannot bear very much reality." We're catching this guy at the very moment where he can finally admit that he's lost his woman, and I can just imagine the dull agony of that long drive from Leavenworth to Dodge. I see the guy through a rain-spattered windshield, sobbing; and yeah, I know I added those details, but it's Eaglesmith's genius to pull you into his storytelling and let you take over for yourself. (May I add here that Bob Dylan still hasn't learned how to do this?)
It doesn't have to be Kansas, really; it could be the A train, or the Staten Island ferry late at night, or the Stop & Shop check-out line--any place or any time where your heart catches up with the news. The news could be 20 years old, even; it doesn't matter. We all have some kind of Kansas where we always break down, and somehow just having it put into a song helps.
Thanks, Fred; and thanks, Jim.