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By New Times Staff
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By Chase Kamp
If he had his druthers, singer-songwriter David Wilcox would have music critics, publicists and their ilk stop calling him a "folk singer." That label, he believes, belongs to the purveyors of the protest and labor anthems of past decades, to those vocal partisans whose causes were large and whose stirring, musical brush strokes were meant to sweep listeners onto the great canvas of solidarity.
While Wilcox is a serious sort, he doesn't pretend to be the voice of the masses. In fact, his songs are tender little acoustic vignettes of everyday life, focused examinations of individual frailties and triumphs. His subjects tend toward the confessional rather than the universal.
Still, what do you call a performer who, armed with but a six-string guitar and a bag of songs, wends his way through America's villages and cities, primarily playing folk festivals, coffee houses and small, smoky bars? And singing with a cashmere-soft voice that owes more to James Taylor than any genetic inheritance?
"My objection was truly a technical one," Wilcox says during a telephone conversation from his Asheville, North Carolina, home. "I haven't done the 'great cause' songs that I listened to on my father's records and which I always associated with folk music." He laughs softly. "I just knew that I loved that sound."
Wilcox's affinity for folk and his deep well of tales began during his Mentor, Ohio, upbringing. While "Sweet Baby James" spun on his personal turntable, an older brother played Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and assorted wordsmithy, Weatherman-era artists.
"That stuff opened my eyes to the lyrical possibilities," Wilcox says.
On the other hand, Wilcox didn't care at all for the Beatles albums his father bought. He didn't like the music the "fabulous" import made. Then again, it's possible that distaste was at least partially due to a contentious father-son relationship. When he turned 18, David Wilcox left Ohio and didn't look back--or go back--for a long time.
"Boston was the first stop on my trip into the world," Wilcox recalls. "Among my discoveries was public transportation--we didn't have any of that in Mentor. In Boston, I could just get on the bus and it would take me to these places where all this great music was being made. At the time [the late Seventies], Boston was about the only town where you could hear acoustic music all over the place."
Wilcox continued his travels, eventually lighting in the Blue Ridge Mountain community of Asheville, where he attended nearby Warren Wilson College. He studied drama, poetry and religion at the small liberal-arts school that catered primarily to the region's mountain folk. While he had continued to gain prowess with the guitar, Wilcox found his songwriting muse in those green and rustic environs.
He soon began performing his songs and eventually became a popular fixture at McDibb's, a local club (now gone). He also played in other area pubs. Word spread from the hills as his following grew, aided by the 1987 release of The Nightshift Watchman on the local Song of the Wood Music label. The big break came when news of the talented Tar Heel troubadour reached, of all places, Nashville. He performed a showcase at the famed Bluebird Cafe, a tiny room whose limited space is usually filled with the power brokers of the country-music business. "It seems like a strange place for me to go," Wilcox admits, "but the Bluebird had a reputation for truly giving you a chance to play." He quickly realized what rare good fortune he had by garnering the gig. He saw firsthand the cutthroat competitiveness of big-bucks country music--folk music in the radical sense," he calls it--and marveled at the odds against the wide-eyed, besequined legions of Garth and Reba wanna-bes making it in Music City.
"You put in a quarter and pull the handle," Wilcox says of his country-music cousins. "Maybe you'll get lucky."
Wilcox did. He not only caught the attention of and signed a contract with A&M Records, but his powerful performance moved Bluebird owner Amy Kurland to become his manager, a position she held for his formative first few years.
His 1989 album, How Did You Find Me Here?, was the first fruit of the relationship. Its spare arrangements and vivid stories of the moment brought sales of more than 100,000--stunning figures for an artist wearing the--like it or not--folk" tag. Wilcox's most recent work, 1991's Home Again, has a fuller sound than his previous albums, featuring contributions by jazzmen Marc Egan (fretless bass) and Randy Brecker (flgelhorn), plus elegant back-up vocals by Mary-Chapin Carpenter. Yet the greater change is found in the content of the songs themselves.
"I've spent most of my songwriting life considering what lay ahead," notes Wilcox. "But it's time to reflect upon what has been." True to his word, the song "Top of the Roller Coaster" recalls a particularly memorable birthday, while "Wildberry Pie" celebrates love and sex. "Chet Baker's Unsung Swan Song" has Wilcox imagining the last thoughts of the great jazz star who fell to his death from an Amsterdam hotel window.
Home Again has been most frequently noted for "Covert War," wherein Wilcox directly explains to his parents why he never goes home to visit. While nearly a decade and a half had passed since he'd fled Ohio, it took Wilcox that long to bring himself to reflect upon--and write about--his unhappy home life: "Holy days, they bring us all together/After so much left unsaid/You taught us well not to kick under the table/Kick under your breath, instead."
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