Country songwriters singing their own songs
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., March 6, 2003) – Some of Nashville’s finest songcraft was on display on Wednesday night at Club Helsinki, where three songwriters showcased the raw material that is shaped into country-music hits by the likes of Trisha Yearwood, Lorrie Morgan and Shenandoah.

Unlike in rock, folk, and even in a lot of pop music -- where since the 1960s, “authenticity,” as reflected in a singer writing his own material, has trumped virtuosity -- there is still a divide in much of country music separating the singer from the songwriter.

Hearing hit country songwriters Rivers Rutherford, Angela Kaset and Hugh Prestwood perform their own material under the rubric of Nashville Underground – a record label and songwriter’s collaborative -- underlined the pluses and minuses of that approach.

On the one hand, clearly Rutherford and Kaset – both of whom boast terrific voices and stage personalities, virtuosic instrumental and arranging skills, and an intuitive grasp of their own material – could clearly succeed as performers in their own right.

Even Prestwood, whose talents as a performer were more modest, was no less of a presence than are many contemporary folk singer-songwriters who enjoy successful, mid-level careers touring the nation’s folk clubs and coffeehouses with lesser songs that outmatch their voices.

But this round-robin song-swap wasn’t about proving that the songwriters were the equals of their mouthpieces. This was about showcasing craftsmen who love their work and appreciate the genius of their peers. And in the course of the evening’s two sets, the songwriters entertained the small audience and provided a window into their craft and sensibilities.

Rutherford was a brash extrovert, playing up his Southernness and self-described “redness” (as in redneck) in songs and stories about hunting, cheating and reconciling. He had a gritty, everyman voice and a forceful guitar style, and with lines like, “I’ll always be the cover when you’re cold,” his songs were models of country’s direct, lyrical economy.

Playing electric keyboard, Kaset showcased her ballads and a few novelty numbers. Her middle-of-the-road melodies could easily be performed as country, pop or even soul songs, and her own delivery – she boasts a rich, expressive voice but knows when to hold back – veered pleasantly toward the Laura Nyro, pop-soul side of the spectrum.

She also performed a dainty, cabaret-style tune called “Lila and the Dancing Bears” – about a woman who raises two orphaned bear cubs, dresses them up and teaches them to dance -- that suggested she could have a second career as a writer of Broadway show tunes.

Prestwood specialized in dark, mournful ballads, several shrouded by the specter of death, that showed his self-professed debt to James Taylor, as well as betraying his Texas roots – his gritty, pinched vocals recalled those of his fellow Texan, Jim Seals, of Seals and Crofts.

As much as the talent of these songwriters made a case for them as performers and argued for country music to open up its doors and let its songwriters sing their own songs, there was something appealing about the modesty of these songwriters who have no pretensions to or aspirations for careers as performers. They each have their own reasons for not doing so – family obligations, a modest or realistic sense of their limitations as performers, whatever.

In the end, they made an equally strong case that something was lost in folk and rock when every songwriter automatically assumed that he had the right to get up on stage and perform his own songs. For every Rutherford, Kaset and Prestwood who thinks he has no business being on stage, there are at least a dozen folksingers who really don’t – who ought to take a cue from these talented, accomplished veterans, and leave the singing to the singers.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 8, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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