Eilen Jewell sings Loretta Lynn: A meditation on context
Through the continuing kindness of the folks at Signature Sounds, I was able to begin listening to Eilen Jewell’s Butcher Holler: A Tribute to Loretta Lynn some months before it came out. When this site sponsored a contest around the record, I shelved the essay I had been thinking about, driving back and forth to the garden listening to Ms. Jewell sing songs written by a women raised a few counties south of here.
And some of it has slipped away, but I still wish to give it a go.
Let’s be clear from the beginning that whatever gets typed after is not a criticism of Ms. Jewell. I like listening to her voice, and I like this record enough to keep listening to it. And she features one of my favorite guitar players in her band, fellow named Jerry Miller (and not the guy from Moby Grape).
But about the fourth trip out to the farm I began to notice things that interested me, beyond the languid pleasures of Ms. Jewell’s succulent phrasing.
Loretta Lynn wrote these songs, what? forty years ago? Fifty, I suppose. (Ack.) She was married at 13, stayed married for 50 years (most of them hard, one way or another), had a passel of kids before she turned 18 and started singing on stage. Something like that; you’ve seen the movie.
That she might become famous was the longest of shots, and is a testament to the power of her words and her voice, rooted as they are deep in Johnson County, Kentucky. And to a kind of strength I can only guess at.
Eilen Jewell is an entirely different woman, born in an entirely different age. Loretta Lynn was born April 14, 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression, in deepest Appalachia. Eilen Jewell was born April 6, 1979 (both of ’em Aries, as am I), at the edge of the Reagan Recession, in Idaho.
Lynn is a terrific songwriter, and, much like Merle Haggard or Billy Joe Shaver, she writes straight from life. Her songs are true, emotionally if not biographically, and they cost something. A lot, sometimes.
When, for example, Loretta Lynn sings the opening “Fist City,” no matter that she’s smiling on the video, make no mistake that she means it. (I was on Topix a few days back and found a thread wondering who the toughest girls were in this county, who was most likely to throw down. Some things don’t change, or, maybe, that’s the Jerry Springer effect.) The consequences of losing her man would be severe, both for the singer and her children. And she would fight like a catamount to keep her man, never mind whether he was worth a damn or not.
Eilen Jewell loves these songs. You can hear it in her voice, and she’d not have made this record if she didn’t. But she’s from Boston, busked in California, lives in Boston. Different time, different place, different pronunciation.
These songs don’t cost Jewell anything. They’re fun. I can’t believe, listening to her sing, that any woman could take her man, or that she’d give two shakes of a rat’s tail if they did. She’d just get another. So “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (With Lovin On Your Mind)” is a jaunty affair. And “Who Says God Is Dead” is an airy excursion to her upper register, not a furious repudiation and affirmation. (And kudos for taking on the song. It would be easy to neglect that side of Lynn’s canon, living up there in Boston.)
This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, it’s just different.
To be fair, Jewell seems (at least in this set) a kind of jazz singer, closer to Patsy Cline than to Loretta Lynn. She has a glorious, fluid voice, barely behind the beat, that is real easy to listen to over and over again. But she’s carefree, and so the songs which resonate most is the delightful “You Wanna Give Me A Lift” and the gloomy “This Haunted House.” (Neither of those were hit singles, which may make them better choices for interpretation.) “Deep As Your Pocket” works, too, because Jewell’s confidence works with these words.
“You Wanna Give Me A Life” is the song where it clicked for me, the distance between the new singer and the old song: “I’m a little bit warm/but that means don’t mean I’m on fire/you want to take me for a ride/in the backseat of your car/you wanna give me a lift/but this gal ain’t goin’ that far.” It’s a splendid, whimsical piece of liberated songwriting. Unmitigated, unmediated fun. But the thing that Jewell misses is that it all rhymes. Here in Eastern Kentucky: fire, car, and far are pronounced close enough to rhyme.
Now, Jewell couldn’t credibly pronounce “fire” as “fahr,” and wisely doesn’t. So there’s no fault found, just a difference noted.
My question, then, where I began thinking about this, is whether it matters? I think it does, and I think songs have their context eroded over time, regardless. Look at all the songs about trains and chickens and other artifacts of the last century which now seem quaint, or unknowable. Nostalgia, where once was true life.
This is not to say only somebody from Johnson County should sing Loretta Lynn’s songs, far from it. Even somebody from Johnson County would now be informed by a far different and broader world than Lynn might have guessed at in 1960.
But I do wonder why Eilen Jewell chose so many angry songs, so many very strong words, when she doesn’t have a hint of that anger in her voice, nor in her public persona. (I’ve only seen her play once, to be fair.) And I wonder how the songs play now, to those who didn’t hear the originals on the radio.