There is a peculiar emotion prevalent in western Montana today, a kind of nostalgia for the present. The artful phrase “the last best place” has taken on a popular resonance, as if to say the frontier is still, just barely, open. To borrow from a haiku by the poet Basho: “Even in the Bitterroot/Hearing the coyote’s cry/I long for the Bitterroot.”
Perhaps this sentiment prevails because in the last decade more strip malls, box stores and high-speed, multi-lane roads have been built than many residents here are comfortable with, threatening to swamp western Montana’s quiet culture, which, though prone to poverty, has its own highly valued integrity. “If worshipping dollars and high paid careers is your thing,” people say with pride, “this is not the place to be.” You can’t buy the good life.
On his new recording Pretty Mountain, Hamilton musician Bill LaCroix has captured the feel of life in the Columbia River Basin. In the finest folk tradition, LaCroix has woven his own songs, and renditions of some of the best little-known Northwestern songwriting, into a simple, bio-regional masterpiece. As is fitting, LaCroix plays two songs on a cardboard-topped Rocky Mountain dulcimer—a loud instrument that some fiddle players have said “should be burned on principle”—created by Montana instrument maker Ray Jacobs.
Tending toward simplicity and with a standard folk structure, the songs on Pretty Mountain seem imbued with knowledge granted by the land itself.
LaCroix has an ear for songs with refreshingly humble themes. “Pretty Mountain” was inspired by a view of Como Peak while he was out tree planting. “It’s a cluttered rented yard/Oh the valley life is hard/Where two ends don’t ever meet to make a pair/But at least the work’s outside/I don’t mind the rough old ride/When I look up there and see you pretty mountain.” The jaunty cowboy tune “Old Elk Heads” was inspired by LaCroix’s son, then three years old, learning to rope an elk head on the wall with a twine lasso. In “Corroded Things,” LaCroix sings of the irony of “rich folks…buyin’ up what was thrown out by the poor.” “Songs Our Hearts Will Sing” is a hopeful farewell written by Clem Small, longtime musical crony of LaCroix’s, now moved away. “Duck Boys,” written by Duck Boy cards creator Paul Stanton, was a hit for years on the kids radio show The Pea Green Boat. LaCroix is accompanied on the disc by Tom Robison
on fiddle and harmony vocals, Pam Small
on harmony vocals and Mike Conroy on bass and mandolin.
In 1994 Michelle Shocked left the Mercury label when company executives refused to produce her material, claiming it was too depressing. With a confidence in her music akin to that of Bob Dylan, she produced a low-budget, rough-cut recording with Hothouse Flowers guitarist Fiachna O’Braonain titled Kind Hearted Woman and sold the discs at her concerts. Far from being too morose, the dark sincerity of her songs struck a resounding chord with audiences, and she was able to re-record a more refined version of the disc, with full-band accompaniment, two years later. Though Shocked began her career as a rocking contemporary singer-songwriter, she has changed styles, presenting a new theme with each successive recording, moving from swing band music through old-time, bluegrass, and hard-hitting acoustic folk ballads.
Accordingly, Shocked’s latest recording bears little resemblance to anything she has previously released. Deep Natural, the first release of Shocked’s own label, Mighty Sound, is an eclectic mix of styles. There are strains of blues, black Baptist gospel, soul, swing, dub, psychedelic rock and folk, concentrated into a solution that is impossible to pigeonhole. Prior to going into the recording studio for this disc, Shocked spent time in the brass band scene in New Orleans, the city she presently calls home, and has been in regular attendance at an African-American church where she’s known as “Sister Shocked.” She seems to have immersed herself completely in the new sound, not simply borrowing new styles, but becoming them.
The depth of Shocked’s commitment to gospel is clear, a fact to which anyone who saw her recent performance in Missoula can attest. She was preaching the Word that night, belting out a mighty vocal sound that easily puts much of today’s schmaltzy Christian rock to shame. It is conceivable that some gospel music purists might find Shocked’s iconoclastic fusion of religion, blues and psychedelia in poor taste. I say more power to her. The songs are astonishingly warm and anything but dogmatic. Even the overtly Christian “Psalm” has a gentle naiveté reminiscent of poet William Blake.
The songs range from introspective ballads exploring the work required of a loving relationship, to Baptist and dub gospel celebrating personal healing and social empowerment, to fiery blues that serve as counterpoint to the gospel. Accompanying musicians include trumpeter Rich Armstrong, whose horn might make the angel Gabriel smile. O’Braonain’s guitar moves from blues to dub to something that sounds distinctly like the backing to the Grateful Dead’s “Bird Song.” A stripped down instrumental disc, titled Dub Natural, is also included in the package.