John Lilly-“Cold Comfort”
I first met John Lilly soon after he became the editor of “Goldenseal,” the magazine of West Virginia traditional life. But our first substantive conversation did not occur until I discovered that we both have a love of Hank Williams. John’s first annual Hank Williams Tribute concert (which has become a staple of the state’s music scene that was reviewed in this magazine on January 15, 2010 and it’s next incarnation is scheduled for January 7, 2012) on the 50th anniversary of his death. When asked if I was in attendance, I had to say, no. That night, I was in New York attending the off-Broadway play “Lost Highway” based on Hank’s life and music. A different kind of coincidence.
His love of Hank Williams — and his talent — enabled him to win the national Ghost Writers In the Sky songwriting contest, sponsored by HankFest, a Chicago-based festival honoring the music of Hank Williams with the song “Blue Highway.”
In 2010 the Next Great Road Song contest, sponsored by the Midas muffler company and Spin magazine, John’s song “Come and Go” placed first in the acoustic category, out of more than 1,200 song entries. And it was winning that songwriting contest that enabled him to record his just released sixth album, “Cold Comfort.”
Yes, in these lean economic times, it pays to be creative in more ways than one.
While John and his music are well known in this country and Europe in a good number of circles, he remains overlooked in many of the Americana music publications, including our own No Depression community. However, with “Cold Comfort” — currently number 1 on the Freeform American Roots Chart and number 4 on the EuroAmericana chart — that should change in a hurry.
After the successes of his earlier work, John found himself at a crossroads a couple of years ago. He wanted to take his music to the next level and tried his hand at writing songs that he thought name performers would cover and perhaps become commercial hits. By his own admission, he not only failed miserably but was such a frustrating experience that he began to question himself. Then, an epiphany happened — by writing a song that just came to him. He did not give it too much thought, just let the song write itself. Thus, he was able to clear out the garbage in his head and let go of the stranger he thought he wanted to be. It’s like they say about how to live your life — to dance as if no one is watching.
(Yes, that’s Hazel Dickens John is dancing with.)
Recorded in San Antonio and Nashville, with it’s judicious use of fiddle and pedal steel, and a Marty Robbins-like voice, John leaves no stone unturned as he lets those influences flow out of him in 13 original songs that you could swear are decades old. Be they honky tonk, western swing, semi-humorous or a killer tears in your beer song with a great hook line John remains focused on the end result, one of the finest albums of 2011. (It is one of the ten essential records of 2011 I selected for the No Depression poll.)
While the two albums that preceded “Cold Comfort” were more stripped down affairs, John wanted a full band of very specific players on this one. And he held out long enough to get exactly that. Not only is the great Kayton Roberts (who played rhythm & steel guitar in Hanks Snow’s band), with whom John has played many times, on it, but it also features slide guitar master Sonny Landreth, master of all instruments Tim O’Brien, Tommy Detamore and Bill Kirchen, among others.
The album kicks off with the upbeat “Come & Go With Me” which evokes the wild, high free spirit of early Ian Tyson, foregoing predictability with the adventure of where those four strong winds might take you. The song not only speaks to the would be lover, but to the listener as well as he invites us to take a journey of the songs to come — songs steeped in the traditions of that great country and folk music decade, the 1950’s.
Along with “Come and Go” two other songs seem to getting most of the airplay on independent airwaves and internet radio, such as Tap Root Radio. The first is a truck driving song, “I-95” an uptempo guitar/piano driven triangle song about being in love with a woman who’s in love with a truck driver who makes long interstate hauls.
“I-95” also serves as the perfect setup for the killer track, “Anyone But You.” With a Floyd Cramer inspired piano intro by Floyd Domino and a mournful pedal steel that comes in right on cue, it’s the best cheating song that I have heard since John Prine’s album of meetin’, cheatin’ and retreatin’ songs, “In Spite of Ourselves.” The wife of the song’s protagonist has long accepted her husband’s cheating ways, but he knows she could not handle it if she knew who his latest mistress was. John pulls off something extremely rare in the song: by refraining from placing blame or rendering judgment, the listener ends up empathizing with all three of the principals.
“Cold Comfort” was originally set to contain only 12 songs. But on the last night in Texas, after the San Antonio sessions were completed, there came a rainstorm so hard that it shook the house, giving rise to another song he wrote that night, “Somewhere in Texas.” It is the only song John performs solo and it closes the album, serving like a coda to what came before. Unrequited, the protagonist is awakened by a storm, having lost his love somewhere between Austin and San Angelo, knowing somewhere in Texas it was surely raining that night.
Of all the gin joints in all the world, she walks out of mine. Play it again, Sam.
And if you are in the vicinity, John’s playing a New Year’s eve gig at the Bluegrass Kitchen and, as mentioned above, he will be hosting his annual Hank Williams Tribute (with Kayton Roberts, Rob McNurlin, Buddy Griffin and Richie Collins, among many others) on January 7. Both in Charley West.