Mike Ireland – Starting over
“Strings aren’t a substitute,” Ireland stresses. “You can’t take a crappy song, stick strings on it and go, ‘Wow, now it’s emotionally moving!’ But on songs like ‘For The Good Times’, when the strings are used well, like any instrument, they help to support what’s going on emotionally in the song. Man, I just love those records…”
“So hopefully the more seriously we approach songs like that, the less people can just write them off as, ‘Ha ha, they’re doing “Harper Valley PTA”, isn’t that a kick.’ I don’t want to be about a kick. And if we do it seriously and don’t let up, then the audience has to make sense of that.”
In other words, it’s the lyrics of those songs, just as much as their sound, that Ireland sees as the essence of what’s countrypolitan in his music. Bring up legendary countrypolitan songwriters like Curly Putnam, and Ireland starts counting the ways he loves their songs. “One, those songs are very emotionally direct — they’re just the bare facts, without a lot of adornment or clever turns of phrase. And, two, they’re very unashamed about those emotions. They may be ashamed of what they’ve done, but they’re not ashamed of revealing it to an audience. And I guess, third, there’s an innate sense of dignity to those songs, a strength — and it comes from their willingness to let themselves be seen as vulnerable.
“So I guess one reason I moved in this direction is because I think the songs I’m putting out are fairly bare emotionally, not hiding a lot, and I think that can make people uncomfortable. I honestly believe that even if we hadn’t used strings, there would still be a problem for some listeners. I mean, I guess the word is that they seem too ‘unironic’ to people; the feelings are just out there. That either moves you or you need to find it comical or corny, because the assumption is no one could really be in this much pain, nobody’s life could go this wrong.
“Or maybe,” he smiles, “it’s just that no one’s supposed to be a big enough wuss to say it. But really that might be the truest thing you can say.”
The songs and performances on Learning How To Live are consistently risky in just this fashion. The emotional nakedness is there in the sensitive, restrained support of his backing band, Holler: brothers Mike Lemon (lead guitar, mandolin, lap steel) and Paul “Smokey” Lemon (drums), both of whom were also in the Starkweathers; and Dan Mesh (rhythm guitar, backing vocals).
That vulnerability is there, too, in the masterly, dynamic way Ireland sings them — soulfully crooning one moment, all over-the-top the next. Like Charlie Rich or Marty Robbins or Dusty Springfield, his phrasing is tough to pin down to any one location on the popular music map. The emotional payoff is that, when he takes on a spare, delicately swinging version of “Cry” (a 1951 pop hit for Johnnie Ray and a top-five country smash for Lynn Anderson in ’72), he can make you want to do just that.
But mostly it’s in Ireland’s songs, which wind through secret worlds of uncut anger, regret and, finally, acceptance, enlisting great craft in the service of painful wisdom. “House Of Secrets” seduces and chills with a nightmare of lunatic vengeance. “Worst Of All”, with majestic strings and Benmont Tench on piano, and the country-rockin’ “Headed For A Fall” (an old Starkweathers song, reimagined) shine a light on the numerous small signs of treachery that pointed to disaster but were easier to ignore. The archetypal metaphor of “Biggest Torch In Town” sounds like an instant honky-tonk classic, while the monumentally insistent “Don’t Call This Love” empathizes with the guilt even cheaters must feel. In “Christmas Past”, elegant internal rhymes frame almost unbearably poignant memories. And near the album’s end, the character in “Cold, Cold Comfort” grimly accepts his share of the blame, even as he allows everyone to continue seeing him as the poor victim.
Most moving of all may be the closing title track. It begins with a martial beat reminiscent of George Jones’ “The Battle”, but this fight has already been lost, and all that’s left is to accept what’s done as what is, to embrace the pain, to let go and try again. It’s not a hopeful song, but it unmistakably maintains the possibility of hope — in Ireland’s voice, which still sounds weary but newly humble as well, and in the strings that enter at the chorus. They play a long, sweet, high line that just soars there, floating higher and higher, pulling Ireland with them, up and out of himself, as he prays each night that he actually might be learning how to live. That there just might be, maybe, some other way to live besides closed and bitter.
From fiery revenge to tender acceptance, then, the dark journey on Learning How To Live is much like Ireland’s own. “In a general way, it’s a pretty autobiographical record,” he says. “When the whole thing happened, it was all about blaming the two of them. But over time, I started to realize that I was just as culpable in all of it. There were mistakes I made, things I did badly, you know, ways that I acted and ways I didn’t act that were as much responsible for my marriage breaking up as anything…I guess that’s partly just accepting things as they really are, not having to come up with some reality that makes you feel better but just a reality that’s the truth.
“That’s not the same as forgiveness,” Ireland points out, “but I think it helps you get to forgiveness. You don’t have to blame those people. You can see your own responsibility…That doesn’t make what they did not wrong. But it means that maybe everybody’s wrong. I think life’s more like that. And I think forgiveness becomes easier once you see that other people are just trying for the same things you are. I want security, I want to be loved. I don’t think my wife was trying for something else…And so it makes it easier for me to wish her well. I mean, if she went through this hell to get to this place, I hope it’s where she wants to be.”
“I wouldn’t have guessed I could feel like that two years ago,” he remembers, grateful for the change but still more than a little amazed. “It’s a different feeling than wanting to burn down the house.”
ND contributing editor David Cantwell is a Kansas City-based free lancer. He mourns the recent passing of producer Owen Bradley, a man who knew a thing or two about making great country-pop records.