Michael Fracasso – The Truth Shall Set You Free
If there’s a single principle that has guided Michael Fracasso throughout his career, it’s the notion of being true to yourself. Perhaps because he was slow to embrace the concept early on, the 52-year-old singer-songwriter today describes that imperative as “the thread that’s kept me going, that’s kept me sane.”
While mainstream success has thus far eluded him, in the past decade Fracasso has released five albums to near-universal critical acclaim. A Pocketful Of Rain, released in February by Texas Music Group, constitutes his best chance yet of broadening a fan base that includes such high-profile admirers as Patty Griffin, who guests on the new album and has featured Fracasso as an opening act on recent tours. But just getting to the point where such success is within reach has been an arduous process.
Born and raised in Mingo Junction, Ohio, a mill town that served as the setting for much of the film The Deer Hunter, Fracasso was drawn to music at an early age, beginning with trips his family took to the Country Music Jamboree in Wheeling, West Virginia. In a town where the emphasis was on baseball and other sports for which he had no particular affinity, Fracasso took up songwriting as a way of “establishing an identity for myself.”
“I remember the first two records we ever got when I was a kid,” he says. “One was an Elvis Presley record — a 45 with ‘Hound Dog’ on it — and the other was by a group called the Five Bells, who did this song called ‘Little Willie Brown.’ Those were the only two records I owned, for a long time, and I listened to them really intently. And then I discovered the Everly Brothers, who I really loved. I didn’t really pursue songwriting, though, until I started listening to Bob Dylan. With Dylan, I saw the scope of how you could write, with less structure and more in a poetic kind of way. That was really inspiring.”
Notwithstanding his inclination toward songwriting, Fracasso dutifully went off to college, first in nearby Steubenville and then at Ohio State, where he earned a degree in Environmental Science. But the world of academia never suited him. “I was totally lost,” he says. “I had never lived away from home, and it was hard. I did graduate, but my proclivity was always toward going to coffeehouses and listening to music, rather than studying and wanting to do something further in that.”
Despite the aversion to formal schooling, Fracasso went on to begin graduate studies at Washington State. He soon dropped out, however, and took a surveyor’s job with the Department of Natural Resources in the Cascade Mountains. Music continued to beckon, though, and within the year he summoned the courage to shake loose the bonds of filial expectations. As it turned out, telling his parents he had decided to try and make a living as a songwriter was something akin to an epiphany.
“It all came together pretty quickly,” he says. “I decided I was just going to be a songwriter, and I wasn’t going to pretend to be something else. I wasn’t going to get a job, and please my parents. That wasn’t going to work. So I called my parents, and when I told them that’s what I was going to do, I think it was the first time in my life that they never argued with me about it. I think it was because there was such clarity in my speaking voice, about what I was going to do.”
Thus freed to follow his heart, Fracasso headed to New York, where the late ’70s New Wave era was in full swing. Fracasso eventually fell in with that crowd, but first he became aligned with the folk music resurgence that was underway in Greenwich Village. Performing on Monday nights at a small club called the Cornelia Street Cafe, Fracasso was expected to showcase a new song each week. The experience wasn’t altogether positive, but the enforced discipline strengthened his skills as a writer.
“There wasn’t any great love for my songs,” he says. “I was presenting this crowd with a sort of country-folk thing, which wasn’t real popular there. Everybody was very influenced by Loudon Wainwright. I think the only person there who was different was Steve Forbert, who became big very quickly.
“It was competitive, and everybody was trying to succeed. The owner of the cafe got involved with a label that was going to put out an album called The Best Of The Cornelia Street Songwriters Exchange, and the people who didn’t get included on that were kind of bitter. I was included on the album, so I guess I was liked, but that brought that scene to a quick end.”
Discouraged by his experience with the folk crowd, Fracasso got a steady engagement at a club called Kenny’s Castaways and began experimenting with various styles. The owner of the venue insisted on a band format, which served to push Fracasso further outside the strictures of folk music.
One of the first musicians he teamed up with, bassist Terry Mann, was hooked into the New Wave crowd, and soon Fracasso and his band were appearing at CBGB and similarly hip clubs. Writing and performing songs that had more in common with the Cars or Blondie than with Dylan proved to be a great learning experience, but by the end of the ’80s, Fracasso was disillusioned with New York and ready to return to more roots-oriented music.
“By the time I left New York I had come full circle,” he recalls. “I was playing this weekly gig at a place called Brother’s Bar-B-Que, on Varrick Street. I had a Thursday night gig there, and I think Chris Whitley had a night there. It was a really cool gig to get. I had this little rootsy band, with no keyboards or synthesizers, and I knew which songs were good for me. I even got a production deal from this guy — not a label, but a guy with a lot of money. I told him, ‘Look, I’m giving you six months. If you can get me a deal I’ll stay, but if not, I’m going to leave town and go someplace else.'”
“Someplace else” wound up being Austin, Texas. Upon his arrival at the outset of the ’90s, he quickly fell in with Austin’s close-knit community of musicians. With production help from guitarist Mike Hardwick (Jon Dee Graham, Jerry Jeff Walker), he self-financed a cassette-only release titled Love & Trust. The small independent label Dejadisc released it on CD in 1993. (Although it’s currently out-of-print, four of its songs are included on a new TMG double-disc collection titled Retrospective.)
Fracasso moved to Rounder’s Bohemia Beat imprint in 1995 for his second album, When I Lived In The Wild. By this time, one artist who was paying especially close attention was noted Austin musician and budding producer Charlie Sexton.
“I met Charlie through the bass player, George Reiff, who I’ve worked with for years,” Fracasso explains. “I had a show at the Hole in the Wall, and my drummer called me up the same night and said he couldn’t make it to the gig. I was freaking out, because I didn’t know who to call. I called George, and said I guess we’re going to have do this without a drummer, and George insisted I call Charlie.
“I’m like, ‘Charlie?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, he knows all your material. He’s a big fan.’ So I called Charlie, and he said he would be happy to do it. The drummer ended up doing the show after all, but Charlie and I did get together soon after that. He invited me to his studio, and as soon as we sat down we started recording.”
The working relationship with Sexton resulted in three albums, although one of them, 2000’s quietly introspective Blue Heaven, has yet to be released. World In A Drop Of Water, released on Bohemia Beat/Rounder in 1998, met with especially positive reviews but failed to garner much commercial success. “I love that record,” says Fracasso, “and it really kind of crushed me that it was so poorly received by the public.”
For the new album, he ended up assuming the producer role himself, as Sexton was busily immersed in other projects. Fracasso gathered together some recording equipment loaned to him by Patty Griffin and converted his two-car garage into a studio.
“It wasn’t without its problems,” he confesses. “The first session ended with my neighbor banging on the walls with a broom, at midnight. After that first session, I thought, ‘God, there’s no way I’m going to be able to make a record,’ but I plugged away at it. It was really fun for me. I got to play electric guitar, and accordion — all the things I knew I could do.”
It’s no accident that the new album harks back, in many ways, to Fracasso’s work on Love & Trust. Whereas World In A Drop Of Water featured, in his words, “an esoteric kind of songwriting [that was] less structured,” A Pocketful Of Rain leans toward more conventional compositions.
High points include a beautiful, strummy duet with Griffin titled “All Or Nothing”, the mid-tempo folk-rocker “K.C.”, and a song titled “Ragamuffin Blues” in which Fracasso offers up Delta blues and brings to the fore the influence of Dylan. There’s also a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Loretta”, with fellow Austin singer-songwriter Beaver Nelson on backing vocals.
At the center of it all is Fracasso’s voice, a supple, yearning tenor that has drawn comparisons to Roy Orbison, Gene Pitney and John Lennon. Oddly enough, as was the case with Lennon, Fracasso has at times held doubts about this singular gift. With A Pocketful Of Rain, however, he feels he’s at last found his voice, not just as a singer but as a songwriter as well.
“That’s what I like best now,” he says, “but it took a long time for me to get there. I never thought of myself as a singer, but I know lately that [my voice] has matured. I also had to find the confidence to do this album myself. It really defines who I am, I think, more than anything I’ve ever done.”