Marlee MacLeod – Couldn’t get arrested
One wall in Marlee MacLeod’s home office is dominated by a large, laminated map of the United States. Black, green and red markered paths denote tours. Self-stick stars adorn cities MacLeod has played; there are veritable constellations, the vast majority of which rest in the musician’s native Southeast. Atop the map, on the ledge of a dry-erase board, are Georgian Roy Finster folk art cutouts of Patsy Cline, Hank Williams Sr. and compatriots. True crime books, tomes on grammar (a subject in which she takes a “peculiar pleasure”) and Southern regional nonfiction such as Dennis Covington’s celebrated Salvation On Sand Mountain nestle in with a host of music reference books on the room’s shelves.
“I almost got arrested last night.” This is MacLeod, the previous night, speaking from the small stage at an in-store performance, just prior to her record-release party at 7th Street Entry, an appendage to Minneapolis’ fabled First Avenue nightclub. The record, on Arizona independent label Hayden’s Ferry, is MacLeod’s fourth. Having made such a pronouncement in her softly-accented, dry-humored way, MacLeod and band (Molly Maher on bass, Billy Hawn on drums) launch into one of the dozen songs from her new album. Later, she returns to the puzzle in folks’ minds regarding her brush with the law.
“About 45 minutes outside of Chicago, in the middle of the night, I realized I’d forgotten to pay for the gas. So we had to turn around.” Upon backtracking, arriving at the scene of the crime, the police had in fact been contacted and MacLeod was left with a little explaining to do.
Both the setting of her office and the faux-fugitive anecdote are telling. As with the music she makes, this is Marlee MacLeod: taking the long route, but inevitably homing in, telling the truth and making a good tale of the adventure. Nowhere is this more evident than on There We Are, successor to largely underappreciated indie gems: 1993’s Drive Too Fast, 1995’s Favorite Ball & Chain, and 1997’s Vertigo.
Having picked up a guitar at the age of 13 and written some “really bad” songs in high school, MacLeod began performing solo acoustic covers in 1989, while attending the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. An occasional freelance rock critic and true crime writer, she now also writes the bulk of her musical repertoire. There are songs about hanging with Shelley Winters on the F train, falling in love, leaving, staying, and points in between. The through lines — from her album titles to new songs such as “Ride”, “Are You Leaving?”, “Universe”, and the standout “Walk You Home” — call forth both concrete detail and abstract feeling of place and movement.
“The sense of place comes from the fact that I’m in a lot of places,” MacLeod says. “I end up writing songs about going places a lot, which I actually have to reign myself back from. It may not show up literally that way, but I’m struck by the differences of places.”
With more than a hint of twang, MacLeod rocks hard and pure, employing inventive yet traditional vocal phrasing that gets better with each record. She makes music that is smart without being overly clever. Lines such as “I read you like a dirty book/I kept you under lock and key” jive alongside rippled cliches such as “I’m gonna carry you around/Like a string around my finger” and more pointedly peculiar imagery: “She swung at his heart like it was a pinata/Til she got what she wanted.”
A native of Fort Payne, Alabama, MacLeod also comes across as Southern without playing into any easy or tired stereotype. “There’s a song on the new record that actually deals with Southern identity much more directly than I ever do, that song ‘Autherine’,” she confesses. “I kinda almost don’t wanna talk about this, because it’s very topical, and I don’t like to do topical songs. What I wanted to do was to write a song that was based around a woman’s name, ’cause that’s like a great tradition in rock ‘n’ roll. And at the same time, I wanted to write about white Southern guilt.
“Autherine, in that song, is Autherine Lucy, who was the first black woman who attempted to go to the University of Alabama. I hate to hear songs that are that heavy handed — so I wrote around it by using a woman’s name and making it seem just like a song about regret, which it kinda is. I do that a lot, write around something.”
Which is precisely how we get there.