01 May 2005

Foggy Highway

Foggy Highway

Press Release, May 2005


Six years after recording his first Bluegrass album, Smoke, with Melbourne-based Uncle Bill, Paul Kelly has returned to the genre. This time round, instead of using a ready-made band, he chose his pickers from Australia’s finest – Ian Simpson (banjo) from the West, Trevor Warner (mandolin) from Adelaide and Mick Albeck (violin), James Gillard (bass) and Rod McCormack, the guitar-playing co-producer, all from New South Wales – then gathered at Rod’s studio in Terrigal on the Central Coast in mid-February where sixteen tracks were done and dusted in a fortnight.


Bluegrass music, pioneered in the mid-1940s by Bill Monroe and his hard-driving band, The Blue Grass Boys, shocked and thrilled audiences across the southern United States on its first appearance. Breakneck instrumentals turbo-powered by Earl Scruggs new three-fingered banjo playing combined with raw, high and lonesome vocals shook up the country music world in a manner akin to Bebop's effect on jazz around the same time and punk's later assault on mid-seventies pop-rock. Its themes are primeval – hardship and struggle, loss and betrayal, heartache and suffering. Like the hymns they spring from, Bluegrass songs remind us that we each face our Maker alone. They rehearse that lonely moment and, in their stark staring terror, find grace.


It’s this tradition, as much as the instrumental exuberance, that Kelly is drawing upon: his songs, for all their warmth and compassion, have a taste for uncomfortable truth. In this collection they show a deepening unease. Time’s running out but their mood is nowise contrite. It is haunted and, at times, aggrieved – a mood not entirely broken by the revelation with which the album ends. These songs fit their setting well.


The first track, ‘Stumbling Block’, is half jokingly described by Kelly as the “history of philosophy in 3 and a half minutes”. The singer announces, without preamble, that he’s hit what he calls a stumbling block and proceeds to describe his many attempts to overcome it without explaining what he means by the phrase. He might as well be Wile E Coyote trying to vaporise a pesky impediment. The joke is on him, of course. He’s simply repeating dopey nostrums, bland mantras and cynical jibes – and barely convincing himself. The only suggestion that the song’s subject is, in fact, moral scruple comes in the chorus, when the bittersweet harmonies wrench with dilemma. The crisis remains unresolved. Although breezy and oblique, this opening gambit establishes the keynote of disquiet. Other songs elaborate.


‘They Thought I Was Asleep’ gives a clairvoyant account of the central dilemma – and perhaps of the genre’s appeal to Kelly, even though the accompaniment here is just guitar and harmonica. It’s a remarkable song, a deft evocation of childhood dread spun from a single, unremarkable image: a family driving at night. After a long day in the countryside, the children are bedded down in the back of the car. The singer wakes in the dark. His parents are talking. His mother sobs. There are tears on his father’s face. They’re not fighting but something is horribly wrong. The child understands, in an instant, the keenness of grief. Everything has changed. The world is no longer cosy and safe. Death has crept into the nest. 

This awful awareness informs much of the album, from the aging roue’s bleak self-assessment in ‘Song of the Old Rake’ to the existential confusion of the title track. Darkness closes in and, as the Adam in ‘Don’t Stand So Close to the Window’ knows, “the darkness has eyes, don’t you see?” Two songs touch on the death of a child. In the first, ‘Ghost Town’, the loss is overwhelming. The world fades to a shadow, a pale figment haunted by ghosts. The father himself becomes a phantom. Grief is his only reality. The second, ‘Passed Over’, is, as the title suggests, a song of thanksgiving, celebrating a firstborn’s escape from the Angel of Death. Although this father is hugely grateful (his elation is most infectious), he is also afraid. He felt the Angel’s presence – “we heard the beating of the terrible wings and then we heard nothing at all”- and then felt his absence as well. This was no metaphor. This was the wrath of God. The song is an act of propitiation, earnest equivalent of unleavened bread.


‘Passed Over’ is one of two songs recorded with a different line-up: Gerry Hale, Nigel McLean, Ian Simpson, Jim Fisher and Fred Kuhnl. Kelly first saw the last three playing bluegrass at the Mundaring Weir Hotel in Western Australia’s Darling Ranges in 1976. They were playing Hank Williams’ ‘I Saw the Light’ like Hank was shining on them. The tenderness they show on the quite different ‘Down To My Soul’, a country/soul ballad which wouldn’t have been out of place on Ways and Means, suggests Hank’s light is still shining. Kasey Chambers is the album’s other guest. Her reading of the Louvin Brothers’ ‘You’re Learning’ is an exquisite sentimental education: tearful, tender and tart.


‘Cities of Texas’, first appeared as the last track on 1989’s So Much Water So Close To Home. A reworking of Shelley's poem, Ozymandias, which meditates on the transitory nature of all power and life, it's seemingly the perfect song to end an album. Nothing should follow its pitiless blast. But here, Kelly vaults it with another post-apocalyptic vision: an image of Christ the Redeemer refulgent. Just as the wind, in ‘Cities of Texas’, gives withering voice to despair, so Christ, in ‘Meet Me in the Middle of the Air’, speaks for hope, promising a paradise that fulfils the promise of Psalm 23. In the tradition of classic bluegrass albums which often end with a gospel performance, the whole song is sung as an a cappella prayer.


Initial copies of the album come with a bonus disc of outtakes from the Terrigal sessions: a brisk, bracing ‘Little Boy Don’t Lose Your Balls’; ‘Rank Stranger’, Albert Brumley’s peerless tale of alienation; the romping instrumental ‘Erina Valley Breakout’, named for the studio location; and Kelly’s own take on ‘Surely God Was A Lover’, the John Shaw Neilson poem he adapted for Jimmy Little’s Resonate.


Bleddyn Butcher