Wednesday, December 30, 1998
By Ben Wener
Knight Ridder Newspapers
It's not as if there hasn't been a precedent for this sort of thing. Covers have been a mainstay of rock 'n' roll, R&B and, especially, folk since before the '50s, and the notion of a tribute album from a major artist dates back (at least) to David Bowie's 1973 all-British Invasion Pin-Ups.
Shawn Colvin called hers Cover Girl and got her first real taste of mainstream success. Lyle Lovett did it a few months ago, paying tribute to unsung Texan heroes on Step Inside This House; the result was one of his strongest albums yet. Heck, Nanci Griffith is practically building a cottage industry out of it, having done Other Voices, Other Rooms and, this year, Other Voices, Too.
Still, the endearing project known as Cry Cry Cry is different. First, an explanation of just what it is: a trio, composed of acclaimed singer-songwriters Dar Williams, Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky. The three old friends teamed for an album under the weeping moniker to spotlight some of their favorite but largely unknown songwriters — REM excepted. (The group's Razor & Tie release opens with a fine, if straightforward, reading of Fall on Me.)
The name comes from "three things," Shindell says, speaking softly by phone from his "quiet house in the woods" of Valhalla, N.Y.
"It's the threeness of it all, obviously, but it's also the sound of the voice, the way a singing voice can often sound like it's crying at the simplest of times. And there's a melancholy to the whole thing, in that most of the songs on the album are pretty damned depressing."
There's also the matter of his newborn son. "The sessions were interrupted by his birth, and a few of the arrangements were inspired by him. And he was around a lot . . . crying."
Such familial surroundings yielded a wonderfully warm effort, especially in moments when Shindell is spotlighted, be it his rich, Richard Thompson-like voice on Robert Earl Keen's Shades of Grey or the ache he applies to Cliff Eberhardt's Memphis.
Or in Shindell's writing. His The Ballad of Mary Magdalen, a wise number that earned him the tag the Nikos Kazantzakis of folk, after the author of The Last Temptation of Christ, is the only tune penned by a Cry Cry Cry participant.
Now, the trio has headed out on tour. Still, because none of the members is a smash as an individual, one has to wonder at the strategy behind this merging of talent.
Shindell, 38, insists, "There's no calculation involved. It was merely a good excuse to sing together for a while."
"It's a conscious return to the days when pop was first getting started, before this obsession with authorship, before the days of singer-songwriters changed everything."
In that sense, it's as true to folk as when Dylan used to cover protest songs by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Thus the decision to do Fall on Me.
"We just tried to get to the substance of the song, apart from the way REM does it," Shindell says. "But that can be hard, because people tend not to discern the singer from the song anymore. I think since the '60s people see songs as only confessional, when there is still a healthy world of interpretation open to us."
Interpreters such as Emmylou Harris, for instance, or even Joan Baez, who counts Shindell among the finest singer-songwriters today. (She's not alone. Shindell's outstanding Reunion Hill, echoing off-beat heroes such as Bruce Cockburn and John Gorka and mainstays John Prine and Gordon Lightfoot, was named 1998 contemporary folk album of the year by the American Federation of Independent Music.)
Indeed, Shindell and Kaplansky are rightly making the most of the spotlight, and Williams, the best-known of the three, is opting out of interviews. But Shindell sees this "supergroup" tour as a chance to keep fanning the flames of neo-folk, a fire that has become inferno-like recently thanks to Lilith Fair and artists such as Sarah McLachlan, Jewel and Ani DiFranco.
"There's really a renaissance to it, an explosion of what I think is great music. . . . People seem to feel empowered to do this as a career now, maybe because of the decentralization of the record industry. And beyond that, there is any number of people short of the success of, say, an Ani DiFranco who are doing just fine.
"And people always tend to come back to the masters, the tradition of the people who came before them. Hank Williams, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman . . . people keep returning to these writers time and again. It's like a family tree and it keeps getting broader."