Tom Waits has always been a sort of hero to me. I don't really know why. Maybe it was that time I saw him take it on the chin from a hostile audience early in his career and act like he didn't even see it happen. Maybe it's that look. There's a look that says, "Not only do I not give a shit what you think, asshole; I am not even taking time to have this thought about such lowly matters as you." Not in a bad, malignant way: Just in the way someone would dismiss a cigarette butt on an already filthy floor.

Joe Henry is Madonna's brother-in-law. You'd think that would put him right in the middle of Sucksville, wouldn't you? You'd think that he was probably a wannabee Backstreet Boy or some other attack on your already {~almost~} homicidal brain. But you'd be surprised to learn that he is a lot like Tom Waits. He chain smokes, looks like he stays out very late at very questionable establishments, and thinks a lot before he puts one of his songs on display to you.

I was in a hotel room in the middle of winter in 1990, away from my wife and the baby we'd just had together. It was a job transfer deal, and I was going to have to do several things, real quick. I was going to have to fix this goddamn mess this company had sent me here to fix. That would be long-range. I was going to have to find a place for my family to live. That would be medium-range. And I was going to have to find a way to survive in this cheap ass hotel for at least a month. That was going to have to be done right fucking now.

One morning I was getting out of that very hard bed with the already-stained sheets, and I reached over and turned on the radio. It was set to NPR and that morning show they do was on. The lady was talking to a guy named Joe Henry, and then she played some cuts from this album he'd just put out, called Shuffletown. She played parts of "I've Got A Date For Church" and "John Hanging." I went out that afternoon and bought the cassette tape of that album. And I don't think, even this many years later, that any one single album has affected me any more deeply as this one.

It might be hard for some folks these days to appreciate the type of music he uses on this album. It's traditional instruments such as acoustic guitars, acoustic bass, acoustic piano, accordion, vibraphone, violin, mandolin, and even a muted trumpet solo on one song. I guess you could call it rockabilly without the rock. It's folk music, I suppose. But the pictures this guy paints with the lyrics here will not (or should not) leave you for the rest of your life; if you're able to enjoy this album. It's one of the few pieces of music I get chill bumps just thinking about. T-Bone Burnett should get an award of some sort for producing this.

The songs:

  • "Helena By the Avenue"
    How many flowers gathered
    Have you carried from the valley
    Into that girded skyway
    That holds you like a bird?
    • I didn't care that much for this one when I first heard it, but it has now become one of my favorites on the album. It's about a young girl who lives in Spanish Harlem.
  • "Shuffletown"
    There is no train due tonight
    And no one leaving town.
    • This is the traditional song about the young girl trapped in Nowheresville. It's not one of my favorites on here. Once you're past Helena, you have to be strong and persevere until you get further into this gem. You won't be disappointed. Fast forward, if you must. But you might like this song better than me, so at least try it once.
  • "John Hanging"
    There is a perfect blue
    Like a floating jar
    Above the trees
    Strung like a guitar.
    • Who would have thought lynching could be so poetic?
  • "Date for Church"
    • If you think of yourself as a psychopathic stalker, you might like this cute little tune.
      I do.
  • "Spent It All"
    • A bitter little ditty about the facts of marriage. "As if this was the only night to live through." I'm sure some of you can relate.
  • Easter.
    But what a fine plan it was
    Even as it falls
    How beautifully it does.
  • Land
    • Going straight from the Bible to the Ancient Mariner is probably a huge leap, but he manages it fairly smoothly here. This is the last song where you will doubt if I've taken you for a ride in suggesting you listen to this. I promise. The rest of it is pure gold. Now listen...
  • "Johnny the Conqueror"
    Where he stands to cry and beg
    "Have a drink on me."
  • "Drowning in the River Half Laughing"
    • This is the one that sealed the deal for me. This is when I knew this guy was onto something very, very large. It's a soft little ballad, with the emphasis on the upright bass. In fact, the solo in the song is the upright bass. But I have never had another song's lyrics give me the chill bumps I still get from this one. "I have come to think my chest is hollow through and through." Oh, yes . . . yes, I have also felt like this, Mr. Henry.
  • "Charlevoix"
    It might be none or any one of us
    Who stay to see this through.
    • Coming out of this moody gut-wrencher, you get the most upbeat song on the album. It's a cajun tune about kids who are playing a game that looks a whole lot like your life. And mine. And it's too wonderful for words, but somehow he finds words to say it. This is a hymn. It's uplifting like an old spiritual.
  • "Make the World Go Away"
    Say the things you used to say (to me)
    And make the world go away.
    • The only song on the album which he borrowed from someone else. This is an old country standard written by Hank Cochran. I doubt if you could find a better lament for lost love than this. Listen to the muted trumpet and the piano play sadness.
  • "Ben Turpin in the Army"
    Ben Turpin's in the Army
    With a bugle in his hand
    A hero 'cause they followed when he ran
    Well, I run and seem like more than what I am.
    • Mr. Henry could not have found a better way to end this stream of songs. I am not sure what this song is about, but I know what it means. And it's not pretty. But it's true. It's as true as anything I've ever heard come out of the mouth of a songwriter.

      I may never know
      But I'll take your
      word for now

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