Amy Allison – A walking contradiction
“I first saw Amy in 1989 at Nightingale’s on Second Avenue in Manhattan, a dive that bands like Blues Traveler and the Spin Doctors played at a lot, in some of their first gigs,” Cantrell remembers. “There was no stage, you played right on the floor in front of a mirrored wall facing a bar. I was a real purist and was very wary of an attitude in New York that country music was kitsch, and when I saw the band name, the Maudlins, I was prepared for the worst.
“But amidst these overgrown boys kind of gently playing their instruments, Amy stood, wearing some kind of country girl outfit and with that unique twang in her voice. She had a song in her set, ‘Walking To The End of The World’. It was just this sad song about a jilted girl, and it had such a pretty melody that it just immediately stuck in my mind. That’s what often happens with Amy’s songs — they just stick around.”
Which is not to say that her early supporters thought they had a new Loretta Lynn on their hands. Besides her refusal to write in a below-the-Mason-Dixon regional style that would have been false for her, there was the matter of what that distinctive and often so affecting Amy Allison singing style actually sounds like.
From her earliest performing days, Allison has had to live with reactions to her low vibrato as alleged Big Apple nasality. It’s what some wouldn’t hesitate to call one of the great Whines of New York, with automatic comparisons to familiar versions from the mouths of such fictional TV caricatures as Fran Drescher’s “The Nanny” or the “Janice” character from “Friends”.
“Some of the descriptions are like, WHOOOAAA! I probably have the best collection of them of anybody,” Allison says of the attempts that have been made to identify her voice. “But this is not an act. It’s just how I sound. There are some people with voices intentionally weird, and some people may even like that now because there’s a precedent for it; it’s become familiar. But I’m just singing. If you have something that really sounds kind of new, people don’t know what to make of it sometimes; when somebody sounds different, some people are all over it.”
On the other hand, they don’t mistake you for anybody else. Allison agrees that one reason she’s been looked at as an “alternative” act over the years is precisely the obvious difference in sound from what you could hear on the Opry. But that very difference has no doubt also been important in attracting the audience she’s had.
One of the central themes in Allison’s lyrics surely speaks to that audience (and others) on this very matter — getting permission to take emotions straight. The whiskey, for instance, may allow the not-so-sweet to seem sweeter; and those who find feelings hard to say out loud might do so if slightly hazy — in the maudlin zone. The band’s name is not for nothing.
What’s problematic for Allison is any notion that, with this New York sound, she must be “smug,” or that she could be mocking country music, pop music, or any part of their diverse audience. That mistake has some family history, too, since the witty Mose Allison is often said to be ironic by half-hearing critics. “My Dad doesn’t write like that,” she insists. “All that stuff about him being all cool and ironic — listen to his songs! They’re mostly straightforward and beautiful, about real life.”
That was the musical approach his daughter would go after as well. But the first collection under her own name, The Maudlin Years, did not appear until 1996 (on Koch Records), and included some demos going back ten years. Such songs as “Garden State Mall” and “Holding The Baby” (feisty as a Loretta number) joined “Whiskey” and “Cheaters” and “Walking” to establish a unique songwriter to be reckoned with. Elvis Costello would list the disc as one of his 500 favorite records of all-time in a Vanity Fair article.
Good as the singing and playing was, Allison admits, it was also a style evolving in public, however careful she was about releasing material. “I don’t finish songs unless they’re keepers, which is why I’m not quite as prolific as I’d want to be,” she says.
The irony was that, after the long wait, The Maudlin Years was upstaged somewhat by the near-simultaneous release of a quick EP (and later a full album) from a side project, Parlor James. Formed when Allison met Ryan Hedgecock (who’d left Lone Justice and moved from Los Angeles to New York) at a Mercury Lounge songwriter’s night, they produced material that included extended, original narrative rockers they wrote or grabbed out of the folk tradition, including an inventive rendition of “My Darling Clementine”. Parlor James gave Allison a chance to do something with her longstanding love of the tragic ballads of traditional acts such as the Blue Sky Boys, in a new context.
Comparisons made to Fairport Convention or even the Blood Oranges may have been no more to-the-point than “there’s some folk material, it rocks, and here’s a girl.” But there was a more familiar sound, and, briefly, big-label backing from Sire that got Parlor James touring as the Maudlins never have. Thus, many rock fans know her primarily from those efforts. Hedgecock has since returned to Los Angeles and movie work; more from Parlor James appears unlikely, if not impossible.
Meanwhile, Allison has become a popular fixture on the New York club scene, in a variety of settings. This summer, she could be seen in a “New York Ladies of Honky Tonk” review at the Mercury Lounge along with Cantrell and organizer Elena Skye; playing a late-night acoustic set with guitarist Mark Spencer at 9C; and at the Downtime’s “Buck Off” salute to Buck Owens featuring New York’s top twang artists, cooing her languid versions of “Only You” and “In The Palm Of Your Hand”. No one hearing those could imagine there’s the slightest smugness in her views of straight country music.