High lonesome strange: Paul Kelly is the best Australian singer/songwriter you've never heard of.
Paul Kelly, Where Art Thou?
Australia's revered singer/songwriter hitches his wagon to the Waifs and heads out to Santa Cruz
By Bill Forman
Nearly two decades after A&M records first introduced stateside audiences to Paul Kelly & the Messengers (his band had actually been called the Coloured Girls, but the Lou Reed--derived moniker was changed in deference to sensitive or perhaps just irony-challenged Americans), one of Australia's greatest music resources is back on the road, this time all by himself and opening up shows for the Waifs.
Kelly may well be the greatest Australian singer/songwriter you've never heard of. Respected to the point of reverence in his own country, he's published two books of lyrics and written songs with a who's who of his most talented countrymen, including longtime friends Kasey Chambers, Archie Roach, David Bridie and Nick Cave.
Chambers turns up once again on Kelly's latest album, Foggy Highway, for a plaintive duet of the Louvin Brothers' "You're Learning." The album, credited to Paul Kelly & the Stormwater Boys, is reputed to be Kelly's second bluegrass album (the first being an Australian-only reworking of his old songs called Smoke). But banjo and fiddle notwithstanding, it's still very much a Paul Kelly album.
"Well, I guess it's my mutant version of bluegrass," says the typically self-deprecating artist. "I've listened to bluegrass from a pretty young age, and I find that style is a good way to present certain songs of mine as well as reinterpret old ones."
A Raymond Carver fan, Kelly has something of a reputation for writing about sex and death, but insists old bluegrass singers' fondness for murder ballads were only part of the appeal. "I know it's a cliché, but it was just that high lonesome sound," says Kelly, whose first bluegrass album came out a year before O Brother, Where Art Thou? spawned a bluegrass revival. "I remember when I heard the Stanley Brothers in my late teens, the hair just went up on the back of my neck. To me it was sort of weird and otherworldly, this high aching singing."
Kelly's recording of the Stanley Brothers' "Rank Stranger" didn't make it onto Foggy Highway, but was included on a disc of outtakes that came with early copies. "That's a song I remember hearing when I was 19 and I thought what the fuck is this? And I just carried that song around with me, you know, singing it in kitchens or just getting together with other people to sing. But I never recorded it before, I had to wait till I grew up a bit."
Kelly would be the last to believe that he's written many songs that rank right up there with those of his heroes, but it's true. On first listen, new songs like "Stumbling Block" and "They Thought I Was Asleep" couldn't appear more different--the former a wonderfully droll take on modern neurosis that would give Bob Dylan and Randy Newman a few chuckles, the latter a poignant story of a child waking up in the back seat and realizing something's gone terribly wrong between his parents. Yet both songs are elliptical in the way they leave the central concern to the listener's imagination.
"I don't want to be deliberately obscure, but yeah, I don't tend to wrap things up in a neat little bow," says Kelly. "It's funny you mentioned 'They Thought I Was Asleep,' because the fiddle player on that session, Mick Albeck, was saying to me, What happened? So he thought that I should know. He said, 'What happened to the parents--did they stay together, did they break up, what was going on?' And I said, 'Well, sorry, I don't know.'"
Unable to resist, I ask Kelly if he's aware that David Lee Roth has just released an album of Van Halen songs done bluegrass-style, proving perhaps that it's not just great minds that think alike. "I'm not really familiar with their whole oeuvre," says Kelly, taking the bait with obvious reluctance. "But 'Jump' is a great song. Finding another way to do a song can open it up, reveal another side to it. Aztec Camera did it covering 'Jump,' so you know, David Lee Roth's got as much right as anybody to try and open up other sides of songs."
Paul Kelly opens for the Waifs Friday, Aug. 25, at 7:30pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. For info and tickets, call 831.479.9421.
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