Hooked for life

One of the best things about being a free-lance writer is that people give me free stuff just so I’ll write about it. And once in a while, someone gives me something I actually want — like Black Mountain singer/songwriter Josh Lamkin’s debut CD, Good Again (My House Music, 2001).

Lamkin likes to reminisce about how awful he felt he sounded when he first ventured in front of the local spotlight many songs ago, admitting that he “totally underestimated how good everyone else was.”

I can’t second his opinion, because I didn’t know him then — but Lamkin is definitely plenty good now. The songs on the South Carolina native’s first album are poppy, catchy, laid-back. The title track and another tune, “Just Past December,” are particularly, well, good. Think James Taylor, less the post-Carly Simon angst. Think ’80s tunes you listened to over and over, then couldn’t stop humming.

“That Dexy’s Midnight Runners song ‘Come on Eileen’? Remember that one? I loved it,” Lamkin confessed in a recent interview, describing some of his influences.

“I’m all about that part of the song you can’t get out of your head, that real hook-y part,” he says about his songwriting style.

No doubt about it, Lamkin was an ’80s kid. “I used to sit up every Sunday night, listening to Rick Dees’ Weekly Top 40. I just had to hear who was gonna be number one,” he remembers. Yet he never aspired to win his own spot on that countdown. In fact, Lamkin didn’t even pick up a guitar till he was out of high school.

Once he did, though, he was hooked. “I was addicted to it like I’ve never been addicted to anything. But I didn’t really want anyone to hear me.”

Then, one night during his freshman year at Presbyterian College, Lamkin went to see “this guy I hadn’t even heard of, David Wilcox. And this other guy, David LaMotte, opened for him.” He continues: “That was the most pivotal moment of my life. Their show and their songs were so intelligent. [Wilcox] would tell these stories, and they’d lead right into the next song, so everything was tied together. It seemed like everything rolled into one. And — it was really fun.”

Which is exactly what Lamkin promises to those who come to one of his shows: “Fun for one and all,” he vows, not unlike a circus ringmaster.

So what can the unconverted expect? Why go see Josh Lamkin instead of, say, the latest Coen Brothers flick?

“Well, I talk back, for one. It’s interactive,” says Lamkin, hitting his PR stride. “It’s sort of a literate, comedic, deep, enlightening kind of experience.” But he quickly amends, “I don’t go up there with an agenda — religious, spiritual, social or whatever. My whole modus operandi, I guess, is to have a good time.”

And if you attend his upcoming CD-release party at the Grey Eagle, Lamkin promises even more. “There will be at least one special guest that night who also appears on the CD.” That could mean any one of several other locally famous musicians, including Christine Kane, David LaMotte, Chris Rosser and Leigh Hilger. It might mean drummer Jay Hoots (of the Tyler Ramsey Trio) or rising folk-rock diva Beth Wood, who recently moved back to the area after a successful stint in Atlanta.

All are his friends and collaborators.

Yet there’s something about the way Lamkin says “special guests” that leads you to believe some or all of the above might show up — dressed as chickens. Or dancing cans of SPAM. Or something else bizarre and irreverent. It’s his tone of voice, his smile.

Because overriding his often-earnest songwriting is something decidedly goofy. “The saddest song — the most beautiful song — I’ve ever heard,” he declares, “is Lyle Lovett’s ‘North Dakota.’

“There’s this one line, ‘I remember waking up in the morning with your arms around my head’ … that image is just so funny to me,” Lamkin laughs. “Here you are in the middle of this really beautiful, powerful song, and all of a sudden you get to this hilarious image. It’s all about those comedic moments, sort of wrapped up in the emotional core.”

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