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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,"
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."
"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."
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
"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
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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