Amy Allison – A walking contradiction
“Maybe I do tend to concentrate on the more miserable aspects of life in my work,” says Amy Allison, “but it’s a thrill when you have a good idea for a song, and you’re doing it, and communicating. I have really good experiences performing live, with people really responding. They laugh, in spite of themselves — and they’re not looking at me like I don’t make sense!”
Which only underscores that Allison has been a performer some have found easy to misunderstand. Her music explores the feelings of the misused, disheartened and smart, yet is peppered with knowing humor amidst the melancholy. Her songs work the stuff of hard country, though they come from the heart of New York — and generally sound like it, too.
“Why would I write songs in the dialect of a place I’m not from?” she asks, reasonably enough. “But if you look at me and it looks incongruous to you — if it’s, ‘Her? What is she doing?’ — well, so much the better.”
Allison’s music, delivered in an accurate but singular voice writers have tripped over themselves trying to describe, spans a space where heartfelt country simplicity and the sophisticated directness of the downtown nightclub chanteuse meet. It’s all held together by the quirky spins and twists of real wit.
These elements are, of course, an offbeat combination that can add up to “cult performer.” Toss in what had been at least some skittishness about getting out on the road and pushing the songs in unknown territory, and the inherent shyness of the woman, and it’s no surprise if you haven’t yet encountered her music firsthand. Even though Amy Allison has been out there following her muse for some fifteen years now.
You may well know one or two of her songs (“The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter” or “Cheater’s World”, for instance) or her more rock-oriented work with Ryan Hedgecock under the duo name Parlor James. With the fall release of Sad Girl, her first new collection in five years, on Diesel Only in the United States (following its earlier release on Glitterhouse in Europe), the level of awareness of her music may be about to change. The disc’s twelve tracks exhibit a directness of expression, a simple universality clearly achieved with considerable composing and life experience, that should attract new listeners, as well as increased attention from other singers as potent and very singer-serviceable material.
That would be a family tradition. As even one-liner bios will remind you, Amy is the daughter of Mose Allison, the legendary Mississippi-raised singer who himself defies standard expectations and commercial categories, bringing jazz fluidity to Delta blues. He’s best-known in rock circles for collaborations with Van Morrison and for writing “Young Man Blues”, heard worldwide on The Who’s Live At Leeds.
If Mose indeed started out plowing behind mules and picking cotton, he’d long since graduated from Louisiana State and taken the family north and into the comfortable confines of Smithtown, Long Island, when his daughter came along. “Sometimes I feel I have roots, schmoots,” she says now. “In my case it’s like, well, I went to the mall.”
If she was the funny one in the high school chorus, the one who could crack them up with the dead-on opera singer or Tom Jones imitations, she was also developing some tough standards for what was acceptable in singing. And not because, as some might imagine, Muddy Waters or Peggy Lee were stopping in to see the family. “There was music around the house,” she acknowledges, but explains that “my Dad was really into classical stuff, mostly 20th-century — Ives and Bartok.”
Yet there was also exposure to the Deep South during long summer stays with the family back in Mississippi. When she started writing songs while attending college at Oberlin, in Ohio, country music was very much in the air on local radio. As she’s told several interviewers over the years, her serious interest and delight in twang seems to have stemmed from an appearance by Loretta Lynn on the old Mike Douglas Show. “I liked it that she was such a sweetheart, and yet she sang so straight. No affect at all. There was maybe a familiarity about it, because I hung around down in Mississippi among women. But gee — it might have been Joey Heatherton on there!”
She was back in New York by 1986, and married young. Her guitar-playing husband of the time and his office co-worker, guitarist Rob Meador, who still plays with Allison, began recording some of her earliest country-influenced songs, including “I Was Born In New York City, But I’m A Country Girl At Heart”. When a tape reached Ellie Coven, who ran (in a sign of things to come) the downtown New York performance space Dixon Heights, Amy and her group, dubbed the Maudlins, were booked in a day.
Was what she started right there a nonstandard career in, of all things, country music? Is that, despite everything, what she has been doing?
“Well…yeah!” she replies, if after a long pause. “I don’t even think about it anymore, because it’s what I’ve been doing so long that it’s just sort of mine. When I listen to it, I don’t really think it really sounds country, but a lot of other people do — and it should to an extent, because that’s a lot of what my songwriting style is.”
Even back then, the New York alternative country scene, bumping as it sometimes will into the more general black shirt downtown music scene, was made up of musicians as closely-knit and supportive of each other as they are in the best sides of Austin or Nashville. Allison’s first national exposure would be through guest appearances on more established artists’ records — a duet with Walter Salas-Humara on the Silos’ 1990 big-label shot, an appearance on They Might Be Giants’ 1992 release Apollo 18. On her own, she placed “Cheater’s World” on one of Diesel Only’s famed Rig Rock compilations, largely made up of contributors from the New York alt-country scene. And there were live appearances on fellow songstress Laura Cantrell’s New York radio show, long before Cantrell recorded Allison’s “The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter”.