Texan (by way of New Mexico) Gilkyson has had many labels, been many things to many people: daughter (to Academy Award-winning folk singer Terry Gilkyson), sister (to X guitarist Tony Gilkyson), New Age thrush (to those who tuned in to her late '80s records and early '90s work with Andreas Vollenweider), Lilith Fair-esque songstress (to fans of her later '90s output, including 1997's sleekly sensual Redemption Road). But one early summer night in Arizona she plays queen to the kings of Tucson's annual Folk Festival, slotted in between bring-the-house-down sets by Keith Secola and Jimmy LaFave. Throughout her 45-minute set, she exudes a radiant, easygoing charisma, and as her choice of material is resolutely of the storytelling kind -- less emphasis on the moods and textures that in the past sometimes overshadowed her lyrics -- perhaps she's finally found the niche she's most comfortable occupying.
That niche is reflected on Gilkyson's newest album, Hard Times in Babylon. Blessed from start to finish with tunes of haunting resonance and lyrical edginess, not to mention Gilkyson's unique twangy/raspy/trembly voice, it's the kind of record that should appeal to boomer-era folkies (Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell), the newer generation of Ani DiFranco-weaned hipsters and even staunch No Depressioneers who look for connections in the lines between Dolly Parton, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Neko Case. As the title forecasts, there's a lot of autobiography and a lot of tragedy (in part, the death of her father) going on in Gilkyson's world, but her downcast tones are deftly balanced by intricate, compelling arrangements.
In "Flatline" she details a particularly painful breakup -- confessing, in a Dylanesque, half-sung/half-spoken voice, "It feels like some kind of voodoo curse/Push me full of pins baby or pull 'em all out/I can't even tell you which is worse" -- amid a rumbling, atmospheric dobro/slide guitar setting. The title track, about the suicide of a dear friend, allows the blow of the eulogy's brutal frankness ("so you had to go take a walk on the wild side . . . but it just don't seem like you") to be softened by tender bedsprings of acoustic guitars and heartbeat bass lines. And when reflecting, in the Buddy and Julie Miller-meets-Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers "Beauty Way," upon the whys and hows of her situation and career to date ("Sometimes I wish I could unplug this cord/And my soul or my money I could save"), any reservations Gilkyson may have are thoroughly offset by the exuberance of the music itself, a clear example of the "music can save your soul" ethos that's helped tug many a self-doubting artist back on track.
Back at the Folk Festival, Gilkyson is unveiling a song that she wrote about her famous father, who at one point had a band called the Easy Riders. Titled "Easy Rider," it's an astonishing number full of 12-string shimmers and Gilkyson's swooping, tremolo-tinged warble that holds the concert crowd rapt. "Farther along, easy rider -- live in the sunshine, by and by," she sings, and it's impossible not to think of another "Easy Rider," too, a celluloid motorcycle jetting down the highway and etching its proud, defiant image indelibly upon the psyche of an entire generation. Perhaps our pride and defiance made us take for granted those who brought us into the world and loved us, sometimes in peculiar ways we couldn't fathom, with all their hearts.
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Songwriters like Gilkyson bring these connections and contradictions to the foreground and, in doing so, earn the label that should outlast all the others: artist.