A TASTE OF STRUM AND FOLKMAKING PEACE WITH HIS PAST, DAVID WILCOX DISCOVERS A PROMISING FUTURE
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."
"Home was an angry place," says the soft-spoken singer. "I wanted them to know why I didn't come home. There was always battling, and my parents--especially my father--were filled with cynicism. I thought by airing it out once and for all that we could find a way out of this gloom, perhaps find something more true." A subsequent meeting with his parents has opened the lines, but has the dust settled yet? Wilcox sighs.
"There's so much dust," he says.
Still, it's this delving into the painful past where, armed with ongoing spiritual awakenings, Wilcox attempts to unearth and reconcile with what was. He's realized, he says, that he needs to do this in order to look forward.
"I need to build a strong foundation," he says. "Not necessarily of granite--cinder blocks will do. I need to have a context. It has to be important to me; clearing away the debris, not just grabbing a religion and transferring it. It doesn't come easy, I've learned. Some people have a faith that rises in the morning and stays warm all day. That's not the way it was--or is--for me."
Although Wilcox's work often deals with the demons unmasked by introspection, the freedom he gains from such face-to-face encounters has allowed his lighter side to rise, as well. Live performances are marked by "folk raps" (For want of a better term," he sighs), rapid-fire, between-tunes soliloquies often filled with humor.
"Believe it or not," Wilcox laughs, "those are inspired by a poetry slam I participated in." These "slams" are often held in contest form, with the winner determined by an audience that offers no critical quarter.
"I'd heard about them when they first came out, and I thought, 'Why not?' My friends predicted that I'd be eaten alive; when I first walked into the room, you could just see the looks on the regulars' faces: 'Fresh meat.' But I won."
While age and spiritual reflections have tempered his inherited sense of cynicism somewhat, they have also fomented fresh consideration of man's broader ills. While he proclaims no Guthriesque aspirations, he knows the big-picture score--as in "Advertising Man": "Crack'll kill ya quickly/That's why it's got to go/They'll get more of your money/If they kill ya nice and slow."
"I'd been apolitical most of my life," Wilcox--who's currently readying his third A&M release--says. "I was brought up to believe that nothing will change. But now I know that it's a matter of vision--both of the future and in second sight." Still, he notes, some of those who purport to disclose great truths too often believe that "one size fits all."
"When George Bush was vice president, he gave a speech at Warren Wilson," remembers Wilcox. "His theme was 'perseverance,' and he recounted a sad day when one of his oil wells had fallen into the ocean. Those were tough times, Bush said. But hadn't he still managed to do well for himself? Here he's talking to a bunch of Appalachian kids who are obliged by college requirements to work for their room and board. They just could not relate."
Wilcox says he has no intention of trying to manufacture lyrics that answer any great question of the day. He couldn't if he wanted to.
"I write from my own experiences," he says. "It's easy to figure that every song I do won't apply to every person who listens to it. They are personal songs. But they do deal with basic and common questions, so there's a chance that one might hit home--like the older man who'd listened to 'Covert War' and came up to me. He said it had made him see things in his son's eyes he hadn't noticed before. That was very gratifying." Wilcox pauses.
"And that's why I wrote it.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.