It was probably spring and almost certainly 1988, when I stepped up to David Wilcox after a show at Montreat College and told him, “The Nightshift Watchman is my favorite folk album.”
He beamed. Maybe it was the first time anyone had told him that – no surprise, since he’d just released that first collection the previous year.
Listening back, 13 albums later, the title track of the first Wilcox release is still worthy of praise. Here’s a regular fellow in a regular job, just putting in his time, a little bored, a little jaded. The job? Minding a nuclear-missile silo waiting for an order to push the button, and so he’s:
“Watching for some movement in the heavens/ Waiting for some action down below/ When it comes I’ll follow my directions/ When it comes it’s time for us to go.”
Then, “If I do my job my job is over …”
Also, in that collection, a song about a dying friend, “Sunshine on the Land,” included a line that still resonates two decades later: “Lookin’ at the sunshine from the earth, the light does come and go. But when you’re lookin’ at the earth shine from the sun, it’s quite a different show.”
At his best, Wilcox is wonderfully devious, with stories that take a similarly unexpected turn. “Eye of the Hurricane,” from How Did You Find Me Here (A&M Records, 1989), is a tale of exuberant freedom that slams into death — “she never felt the pain” — while the humorous “Johnny’s Camaro,” from East Asheville Hardware (Fresh Baked Records, 1996), explores self-discovery in the satisfying termination of a one-sided relationship. The songwriter takes that path again with “Wilford Brandon Hayes” on his newly released Vista (What Are Records? 2006).
“Again” is the operative word when it comes to the songwriter’s melodic and lyrical output, bringing to mind the Talking Heads’ refrain, “Same as it ever was.”
To be fair, that old-sofa/favorite-sweater sameness seems to hold great appeal for devoted fans, and Wilcox generally delivers a fine live show with sweet stories and spot-on guitar work. But there were as many memorable songs on his first two releases as on the whole body of work since, and there isn’t a song on the new CD that calls out for a second listen. He is joined by more than a dozen talented musicians and vocalists who all do their jobs. Not a jarring note in the bunch.
Wilcox skipped two scheduled interviews with this writer (though he made an effort to contact Xpress after the story deadline), but his comments on davidwilcox.com provide questions that Vista doesn’t answer. He wrote, “It’s the groove these songs have that sets them apart from my other recordings. This is the soundtrack of how my life feels lately.”
It’s a subtle groove, and hard to discern. Calling it elevator music would be a tad harsh, but the term “easy listening” pretty well covers it — not unpleasant, but there’s nothing there to interrupt serious thought.
Every singer/songwriter confronts the limits of vocal range and instrumental habit leavened with creative juice — and the combination of predictability and uniqueness is at once a curse and blessing. It’s why fans are fans, after all. Too much change can hamstring a career — think, for example, of the Byrds, who developed a brilliant body of work but shifted rapidly from folk to folk-rock to psychedelic folk to country and left fans in the dust. Yet Wilcox’s folk contemporaries — Natalie Merchant, Jane Siberry, Shawn Colvin, Aimee Mann, Richard Shindell, Dar Williams, to name just a few — have grown and morphed musically without sacrificing their following.
On Vista, by comparison, Wilcox falls back on old themes and even old tunes without injecting fresh nuance or insight.
“Grateful For Her Beauty,” “Coming Alive,” “Everywhere,” “Party of One” and the title track, “Vista,” reprise “Santa Fe,” “Frozen in the Snow,” “It’s Almost Time,” “Golden Key” and “High Hill” from The Nightshift Watchman. The tune for “Hard Part” is lifted nearly intact from “Eye of the Hurricane,” and “Good Man” runs seamlessly from “Golden Key.” Even the “surprise” ending of “Wilford Brandon Hayes” is unsurprising — just another predictably perverse Wilcox love story where she wins in the end.
The singer also wrote on his Web site, “My favorite songs are the ones that have been to the depths of the darkness and shine a light on the way through.” By this measure, the new release doesn’t appear to include any of his favorites. Even his passing reference to the war in “Into One” comes off as neutral, undark and unlit.
This year Wilcox will reprise last year’s “Thanksgiving Homecoming Concert” at Asheville’s Grey Eagle Music Hall, and it is a homecoming of sorts. Though the songwriter hails from Ohio, he achieved his early commercial success with WNC as a home base and has kept a house here while living in Maryland since 1998. He has spent much of the past two years wandering the country — with wife Nance Petit and son Nate — in a biodiesel truck towing an Airstream trailer. Judging by his travel blog, the family has had an enviable experience filled with new and old friends, home schooling, swimming holes, corn roasts, redwoods, hot springs, caverns and desertscapes. No doubt he will regale his audience with touching stories from the trail — over the river and through the woods, to turkey or tofu with all the trimmings.
On the Web site, Wilcox writes of his performances, “I tune in to what’s unique about each night, each room of people in front of me. It feels like I’m getting out of the way and letting the music through.” He’ll get out of the way this Saturday night at The Grey Eagle.
David Wilcox plays The Grey Eagle on Saturday, Nov. 25. 8 p.m. $15/$18. 232-5800.