Diary of a Mod Housewive

Album "Middlessence"

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This article by Richard Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on September 15, 1999. All rights reserved.

Amy Rigby: Folk on the Outside, Punk Rock Down Deep

Unlike much of the current crop of singer-songwriters,

guitarist and vocalist Amy Rigby takes her musical inspiration as

much from punk-rock poets — like Patti Smith — as she does

from such icons of country music as Bill Monroe. Rigby, now 40 and

a single mother of a 10-year-old daughter, moved to New York City

from her native Pittsburgh in 1976 to a fine arts degree program at

the Parsons School of Design. This was a time when clubs in lower

Manhattan were drawing overflow crowds at venues like CBGB for shows

by Television, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, the Patti Smith Group

and the Ramones.

"Deep down inside, I am still a punk rocker," Rigby relates

in a phone call from her new home in Nashville, where she moved last

month. She graduated from Parsons and has spent that past 10 years

living in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.

"Punk has to do with an attitude," she explains. "You

might want to go the sincerity route, but you’re always gonna kind

of have to twist yourself in some kind of way or you just couldn’t

live with yourself. If I wanted to push a certain aspect of my artistry

more, I could probably get further in the music world, but I just

couldn’t look at myself in the mirror and feel honest about it,"

she explains.

To be sure, Rigby has never tailored her songs or her sound to popular

taste. Though it’s quite obvious she’s very bright and could have

gone that route, she chose not to.

"I still believe it’s the record companies and the music stores

that want to make the music all so divided, so they can figure out

how to unload the boxes," she says. Though her latest album "Middlessence,"

(Koch Records) could best be described as folk-rock, she will be performing

solo, with just her guitar, at the Unitarian Church in Washington

Crossing this Saturday, September 18. Rigby notes, falling back on

that punk-rock ethos, "It’s still good to shake people up —

whether they’re 20, 30, 40, or 50."

Top Of Page
Diary of a Mod Housewive

"Middlessence," and Rigby’s critically-acclaimed 1996 debut

for Koch, "Diary of a Mod Housewife," will certainly shake

up listeners. The music contains plenty of jangling guitars, bass,

and drums, and the songs break new thematic and lyrical ground. Unlike

so many other singer-songwriters, the songs are not another boring

rehash of how this relationship or that relationship went bad, though

Rigby admits "Mod Housewife," is partly about the break-up

of her marriage. Songs on "Middlessence" — "Calling

Professor Longhair," "Summer of My Wasted Youth," and

the opening track, "All I Want" — are refreshingly candid,

confessional, and autobiographical. In other words, there’s something

to sink your teeth into here, whether you’re a married housewife,

a working woman, or a 30-something single guy working as a journalist.

Rigby is such a gifted songwriter, it’s a good thing she got out of

Brooklyn earlier this summer and made the move to Nashville. She needs

to be there for her songs to be recognized, and, in time, recorded

by other artists — though not necessarily the inner clique of

country music stars who frequent Music Row.

"I just needed a change of lifestyle," Rigby explains of her

move, "and I wanted to being doing more with my songs. I’d been

coming down here for a couple of years, so I knew a few people here.

I’m not sure I’ll fit in with Music Row, but it is a town full of

songwriters, and I always wondered what would happen if I moved here."

Rigby says she’s still trying to get used to everybody

speaking with a Southern twang, but she has her daughter enrolled

in school, and looks forward to recording another album for Koch Records

perhaps as early as this fall.

Growing up in Pittsburgh, Rigby’s mom was a housewife and her dad

worked in the steel industry. Radio was different in those days, she

recalls, and it wasn’t until she got to New York, at Parsons School

of Design, that her interest in playing music took hold.

"I was a huge music fan in Pittsburgh," she says. "I went

to all the arena-rock shows of the ’70s — Lynyrd Skynyrd, Elton

John, David Bowie — but after I moved to New York I became more

interested in country music." She had the chance to hear the late

New Orleans piano great Henry Roland Byrd, better known as "Professor

Longhair," at New York University in the late 1970s, she recalls.

She found him both an inspiring person and an inspiring musician.

Rigby formed her first band, the Last Roundup, in the mid-1980s, and

the group found support in the indie-rock scene of lower Manhattan,

opening for classic country, blues, and bluegrass musicians like Doc

Watson and Bill Monroe, but also opening shows for Los Lobos and other

rock-oriented bands. After that group split up, she and two of the

other women musicians in Last Roundup formed the Shams. The Shams,

were signed to Matador Records, and they released an album, "Quilt,"

in 1991 before calling it quits in 1994.

Asked about a first big break, Rigby says there hasn’t been one, just

a series of little breaks. "After Last Roundup got signed to Rounder

Records, I said, `I must be doing something worthwhile.’ It’s a series

of little things, like getting to go down to Nashville and record

and getting to go to the Grand Ol’ Opry with Last Roundup. and then

doing some good shows in front of a lot of people. "I feel lucky

to have opened for Bill Monroe. He was one of the most important musicians

of the 20th century."

Top Of Page
Album "Middlessence"

On the new album, "Middlessence" the production values are

as striking as the songs themselves, and part of that has to do with

the involvement of producer Elliot Easton. Easton, formerly of the

Cars, has made a name for himself in the late 1980s and ’90s as a

producer.

"It was suggested to me that I work with Elliot Easton and I knew

he was a great guitar player," she says. "In talking to him

I found he had the same influences as I did, the country influences,

but also the pop influences. I liked the fact the he worked in the

studio as a producer on records that sold millions, and we ended up

being a good match. It was nice to work with someone who was not in

my immediate social or musical circle," she explains.

While "Middlessence" hasn’t sold hundreds of thousands of

copies, her Koch debut, "Mod Housewife," sold in excess of

20,000, and Rigby is justifiably proud of that. She credits most of

those sales to appearances on National Public Radio syndicated shows

like "Fresh Air with Terry Gross" and "All Things Considered."

"Of course I wish it had sold hundreds of thousands, but look

at how many records come out each year," she says, "and I

know from my other bands how hard it is to sell even 2,000 records.

So many things are not in your control when your record comes out,

so the only thing you can control is the quality of what you’re recording."

Although "Middlessence" has not yet sold as

well as "Mod Housewife," Rigby will be doing another album

for Koch and naturally, she will support the release by touring. "All

I can really do now is try to get out and let people know about it,"

she says, noting that she sometimes uses a backing band, but has gotten

very comfortable doing her shows solo.

"It’s gotten so I really like playing solo, the immediacy of it,

whatever’s happening at the moment, it’s real and you’re definitely

the focus person," she says. "When I play solo, I feel like

I’ve really stood up there and exposed myself," she adds, laughing,

"but in a good way, you know."

Rigby’s most requested songs include "Twenty Questions" and

"The Good Girls," both from "Mod Housewife," but in

general, she says, she likes to talk a lot in between tunes and take

her audiences on a journey. "I like to bring my audience through

the emotions, I like things to be a mixture of laughing and crying.

Some sob stories, but also some funny things to balance it out.

"When I see someone like Richard Thompson or Jules Shear get up

there by themselves, I want to hear how they wrote that song. That’s

something I like about the solo format, the chance to talk and tell

stories a bit."

— Richard J. Skelly

Amy Rigby & Stacey Earle, Saje Productions, Unitarian

Church at Washington Crossing, Titusville, 215-862-1917. Double bill

features Amy Rigby and her second CD, "Middlescence," and

Stacey Earle, sister of country rocker Steve Earle, and her debut

self-produced album, "Simple Gearle." $12. Saturday, September

18, 8 p.m.

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