That Zimmerman cat pretty much fucked it for all the humble troubadours. Playing with The Band and spiking his lyrics with both oblique and pointed references to his own messy affairs, Bob Dylan returned from the Highway 61 Revisited tour having completely changed the traditional character of the folk singer. No longer mere performers of song, following Dylan’s sixth album folk artists were expected to mine (or fabricate) their own out-sized persona, creating a mythology that would feed into and authenticate the blood, grit and truth of their songcraft.
Fifty years down the line, on his sixth album, Lily-O, Sam Amidon executes one of the few radical moves left in modern folk music—he negates Dylan’s iconic influence and fully absents his own identity from the act of creation. Culling lyrics from the public domain and recording with few overdubs or added takes, Amidon and a group of trusted players perform Lily-O with an immense, artistic daring—investing this collection of work songs, forgotten hymns, and found ballads with neither history nor mystique, the musicians have nothing to fall back on but the immediacy of the sounds they create.
Timing—actions and reactions—the process goes back and forth and at the same time Dylan was drinking in the life-as-art poetics of gutter libertines from Rimbaud to Henry Miller, a movement of French writers and intellectuals were seeking to define a new mode of writing that would bypass the mediating specter of the author and allow the reader access to the work as a pure, immediate presence. To that end, Roland Barthes declared “The Death of the Author” in a seminal 1967 essay, while in 1965 Alain Robbe-Grillet compiled a book of essays, For A New Novel, during which he repeatedly argued against the concept of the artist as an unhinged genius who first plunges into wild and dire experiences and then distills that suffering and transcendence into creation.
“Alcoholism, poverty, drugs, mystical passion, madness have so encumbered the more or less romanticized biographies of artists that it henceforth seems quite natural to see them as necessities of the creator’s sad condition,” wrote Robbe-Grillet.
While Amidon has never traded on enigmatic Bob-ness or the more straightforward strain of boozy, hard-luck Americana that stretches from Townes Van Zandt to Steve Earle to Phosphorescent, on past records the singer has placed “himself”—Sam Amidon—at the focal center of his songs. On last year’s Bright Sunny South, Amidon inhabited a wistful, pensive “I,” bringing his own melancholy to bear on first-person songs ranging from the homesick title track to the mournful passages of “I Wish I Wish” to his compassionate take on Tim McGraw’s “My Old Friend.”
Opening with a thudding drumbeat—inaudible on laptop or iPhone speakers—Lily-O announces a firm break from the mood of Bright Sunny South. The lead track, “Walkin’ Boss,” invites the listener into a communal “session”—except instead of locals of varying talent and sobriety gathering to strum away their cares at the corner pub, Amidon has recruited jazz-guitar legend Bill Frisell and a core of crack talent.
“Walkin’ Boss” is one of several tracks on Lily-O that was once part of Doc Watson’s repertoire, but instead of the archivist/revivalist qualities Watson brought to traditional styles, Amidon’s “Walkin’ Boss” is a full-bodied, 21st Century creation. A propulsive banjo-line shimmies across the shoulderblades and down, Chris Vatalaro’s percussion rattles behind the sternum, and Frisell’s electric guitar projects stark and evolving visual landscapes. Meanwhile, Amidon’s vocal line imbeds itself somewhere below the frontal lobe; at no point should we seek interpretative meaning or somehow assume Amidon is taking on the role of the laborer in the lyrics. Rather, his voice is one more instrument of tone and tempo in a song that functions as a pure, intense presence.
This authorless approach reaches an apex on “Blue Mountains,” which ranks with “Saro” and “Relief” among Amidon’s most striking songs. Where “Saro” was grounded in the singer’s emotional depth and “Relief” played clear-eyed sly against the R. Kelly original, the quality of “Blue Mountains” exists entirely in the interplay between the performing musicians.
Technically, “Blue Mountains” tells the story of a neighbor who looks on as a married man lures a young woman to run away with him, proposing they abandon their families and carouse all the way to the riverbanks of the big city. In For A New Novel, Robbe-Grillet defined artistic presence as “everything that is is here,” and with “Blue Mountains” everything that is is here in the performance. Amidon’s eloquent fiddle speaks the words of seduction, a skittering drum pattern tenses with pent-up motion, acoustic and electric guitars counter and combine to create wild natural beauty, and complementing it all Amidon’s vocal line moves fluidly from witness to seducer and back, the song creating itself entirely via the act of performance.
Robbe-Grillet warned that artists who strove to replace biographical relevance with works of pure form would be accused of “coldness,” and Barthes further elaborated on the challenges facing art in the author-less mode: “criticism still consists, most of the time, in saying that Baudelaire’s work is the failure of the man Baudelaire, Van Gogh’s work his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice: the explanation of the work is always sought in the man who produced it.”
There is no explanation for Lily-O to be found in Sam Amidon, and where the album falters, it reveals the risks inherent in such a form. Absent any personal signifiers, “Maid Lamenting” stalls in the tepid professionalism of its performance, while during “Your Lone Journey” Amidon can’t help breaking his (non-)character, returning to the inward aspects of Bright Sunny South.
Like Bright Sunny South—which ends with Amidon’s uncertain and grasping version of the shape-note hymn “Weeping Mary”—Lily-O also closes with a spiritual that dates back through the centuries. True to Lily-O’s mode, “Devotion” doesn’t serve as a personal testimonial, offering instead a wide-open field of hope and faith, a non-denominational vision that rises from the Lanois-scapes of Frisell’s ringing guitar and carries forward on the gentle glory of Amidon’s voice, a performance in which the singer sheds all of his characteristic idiosyncrasies. The music is all there is—everything that is is there.