Fashioning compassion

What the formerly Asheville-based folkie David Wilcox misses most about our fair city are the simple things. Fresh air, for instance, is a luxury he’ll never again take for granted: “Here [in Washington, D.C.], they have days when you’re advised not to breathe,” he says, with a speck of bitterness.

Wilcox — he of the velvet, James Taylor-styled voice and copious feel-good maxims — was recently obliged to relocate to Washington D.C., with his family, so that his wife (singer/songwriter Nance Pettit) could attend graduate school there. But, audibly pining for his mountain digs in a recent phone interview, he assures Wilcox-deprived western North Carolinians that his sojourn in the city is only a temporary dislocation.

Air pollution isn’t the only thing that gets under the singer/songwriter’s skin. Cloudy people also rank high on his list of irritants: Although Wilcox himself has been known to adopt a mysteriously peeved tone on occasion, he’s not one to suffer cynics gladly. In Underneath, the title song from his seventh release (Vanguard Records, 1999), the singer/songwriter shakes a paternal finger at those who turn their back on the bright side.

“I know that compassion is all out of fashion/And anger is all the rage,” he croons, observing how easy it is to “Grow up and give in to that cynical spin/That you find on every page.”

“I’m sure you know people like that,” he comments. “That song is about how people respond to the negative stuff that gets into their heads. They think they know the reasons for the world’s problems, and they can be so full of excuses, but excuses are just that … excuses. People who [think like that] ignore the chance to live a full life.”

For his own part, Wilcox staves off the horror of such a narrow existence by distributing his worldview to enthusiastic audiences. And yet he’s always careful to couch his philosophies in fan-friendly terminology:

“Some people can write songs that are in their own personal language, but I say that’s not good enough,” he asserts. “The song has to offer something universal. I want songs that people can understand the first time.”

Not that penning such digestible gems is easy, he’s quick to add: “I write songs with layers in them, so they stay interesting over the years.”

On his latest tour, Wilcox says he found himself so at home in his songs that they practically sang themselves. “It’s been just really great fun,” he enthuses. “I don’t have to justify the [songs’ meanings] by the way I sing and play them: The songs want to be heard. … They have a vision, so they’re easy to sing.”

Wilcox has long been known for a cleverly honed guitar style that features unusual tunings; but with Underneath, he claims to have lost his love for the mere construction of songs: the new tunes, he feels, reside in a higher realm.

“I’ve spent a lot of years learning the different ways of songwriting,” he confides, adding, “Now I’m back to the first quest — not how to write a song, but why.

His latest missives, says Wilcox, “are clearer: They have a purpose to the listener.”

It’s a gently stated purpose, delivered like a pat on the back — and with a well-placed pat on his own back: “These songs have something to offer people … some words they can put on their wall,” he observes with an expansive chuckle.

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