He’s proof that you can have it both ways.
Chuck Brodsky is a glorious oddity, a champion of things that don’t, at first, seem to fit together — proving that they are not only compatible, but maybe even vital to each other. If you subscribe to the notion that we are best described by our contradictions and extremes, then this critically lauded WNC-based singer/songwriter has got humanity’s number.
He writes to the far points of emotion: pathos-drenched portraits of the walking wounded, like the old roadside fruit vendor in “Bill & Annie,” from Letters in the Dirt (Red House, 1996), who’s spent much of his life questioning whether he married the wrong woman; and brave statements of strong social voice, like “Our Gods,” from Radio, Brodksy’s outstanding new Red House release. And every now and then he’ll just knock off a howler, like the riotous road-rage anthem “Blow ‘Em Away,” first heard on A Fingerpainter’s Murals (Waterbug, 1995) and now raucously re-recorded on Radio; or the fan-frenzy frolic of “Hockey Fight Song,” also on Radio. His music dances on a dipping tightrope, like an acrobatic strongman balancing barbells above the ooh-ing crowd.
But the closest Brodsky gets to the middle of the road may just be walking both sides of the street — and, sometimes, stopping to play a little, while he’s at it.
In Cooperstown, N.Y., Brodsky has a regular gig at Gallery 53, an art space. But it’s an entirely different kind of museum than the one on the other side of Main Street, for which the upstate town is famous: the National Baseball Hall of Fame (Brodsky, as it happens, plays there, too).
That’s because of another species of song that he also does so well: the saga of the baseball maverick, the player running just a little outside the lines. It began with “Lefty” (from Fingerpainter’s), the story of a washed-out pitching great battling career’s end, back in the minors. Then came “The Ballad of Eddie Klepp” (Letters), rescuing its real-life subject from historical-footnote status, as the first white man to play in the Negro Leagues; and Letters’ title track, an homage to Brodsky’s boyhood hero, black Phillies first baseman Richie Allen, who faced down fan prejudices, writing silent protests — like “Boo” — in the playing-field dirt. Now, with Radio, there’s “Moe Berg: The Song,” about the brainy Brooklyn Dodgers catcher believed to have been a U.S. spy in the ’30s.
Following Brodsky’s inaugural show in the Hall of Fame’s Bullpen Theater last September, he discovered that Richie Allen himself was also in town. Allen, now a public-relations agent for his former team, was in Cooperstown on behalf of the Phillies’ Reading, Pa., farm club, to attend the Eastern League award ceremonies.
Allen had been sent a dubbed cassette copy of the song “Letters in the Dirt” shortly after its recording, though he’d never received a finished version of the album. Brodsky hustled right over to the hotel where his hero was staying, to remedy the situation.
“I thought, at the very least, I’d be able to leave a CD for him at the front desk, and they’d pass it on,” Brodsky noted by phone recently, sitting on the porch of his secluded mountain cabin outside Weaverville, enjoying a brief respite from touring. “Little did I expect that I’d walk into the lobby and he’d be standing there in a tuxedo, a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. And I was able to walk up to him, and I introduced myself and told him I was the guy who wrote the song about him. And then he just clasped my hands in his and told me how much the song meant to him.”
As the excited singer gave Allen his CD, he pointed out the album title, and the accompanying photograph of the word “Boo” scratched in dirt. What happened next still causes Brodsky to laugh out loud.
Allen pinched his cheek. Just reached right up and pinched it.
“Not only did I get the chance to meet my hero,” Brodsky gushes, “but to know that he was touched by something I did is just … awesome!“
Allen, as immortalized in song, is one in a long line of proud Brodsky outsiders. Radio, in fact, is legion with characters who somehow don’t quite fit in, from the developmentally disabled boy in the bittersweet title cut to the Jewish guy recalling holidays past in the hysterical “On Christmas I Got Nothing,” and the whole influx of out-of-towners in the wryly astute “The Come Heres & The Been Heres.”
Does Brodsky view himself as an outsider?
“For many years, I did see myself [that way],” he admits, “and I wondered if there was anything I could fit into — I think a lot of people in their youth go through that. I’ve been lucky [since] to find numerous communities that I belong to, including the songwriters at Kerrville [the Texas folk festival] and those in and around Black Mountain and Asheville. I was at a crossroads a number of years back: I saw that what I really wanted was to be a part of things — a part of the human race — and to connect in all the ways that I could with people, as opposed to being only on the fringe. I experienced the fringe for many years, and tried to mine it for experiences and enrichment.”
Kibbutz volunteer in Israel, ice-cream vendor, California migrant fruit-picker — Brodsky’s been there, done that.
“I’ve put myself into situations so that I can see and learn things, where I am an outsider,” he admits, “and then I try to become as much of an insider as I can. To me, [being a musician] is less about writing songs and coming up with material than it is about having an interesting and enjoyable life.”
Which he’s certainly doing.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been this happy,” Brodsky confesses. “I’ve found what’s right for me, I think. It’s a real nice place for me to be, out in the country here. It’s relief from the touring life and performing, to get away from that and decompress. It’s probably the most extreme opposite.”
Of course, opposites attract.
“I love what I do,” he concludes. “I love performing. I love meeting people, and putting myself in situations where I [can] interact with them. So after enough time off the road, recharging my batteries, I start itching to get back out there and do what I do. I feel lucky: I’ve found a situation for myself, with some balance, that really works. I love being home, and I love being on the road. And I miss both a little when I’m doing the other.”