Hero worshipper becomes the hero to others
I talked to Shawn Colvin in 2009 when she joined Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin and Buddy Miller on the “Three Girls and Their Buddy” tour, then again in 2012 when she played the 20th Century after publication of her memoir, “Diamond in the Rough.” She plays Memorial Hall April 2 as part of her “Steady On” tour, postponed from its 30th anniversary in 2020. If precedent holds, she will be entertaining, candid and delightful in both song and story. (Photo by Michael Wilson)
In her memoir “Diamond in the Rough,” Shawn Colvin takes a deep breath, then rattles off a list of heroes that she has been lucky enough to meet during the course of an almost 40-year career.
Time is an odd thing, however. Colvin now finds herself being referred to as a hero by younger fans and musicians. A recent visit to the “Today Show” shocked new co-host Savannah Guthrie, who gushed over her love for Colvin as a musician.
“It is gratifying,” says Colvin. “… My fans tell me in person or like me on Facebook and (talk) about my music being the soundtrack to something personal in their life, or their parents played my music all the time. It’s sinking in, you know, that I am to some people what my heroes have been to me. And that’s amazing.”
One of the amazing things about Colvin’s journey is the number of times it almost came to a dead stop. After a childhood in South Dakota and Illinois, Colvin played the role of itinerant musician perfectly. She lived and played in many of the nation’s hotspots – New York, Los Angeles, Boston, the Bay Area, Austin, Texas. But along the way, she became an alcoholic, battled depression and searched for love in all the wrong places.
“Diamond in the Rough” is the tale of a survivor who has reached one of the best times in her life as her responsibilities have multiplied. She is the single mother of Callie, 14; she has aging parents; she is touring with her new album, “All Fall Down,” and talking about her book to many interviewers.
“The story is ultimately helpful,” says Colvin, who is sometimes frighteningly frank in her descriptions. “That’s part of what I have to offer by being honest about that stuff. It’s other people’s willingness to be honest about their story, that was the inspiration that has given me a lot of hope.
“I truly have nothing to hide … Pretty much (laughing). Well, maybe there’s a couple of things.”
Most parents of Colvin’s generation eventually have to make a decision about how much of their past to tell their children. Not even celebrities get a pass from that task.
“I told (Callie) that I don’t want her to (read the book) yet, and she seems to have respected that,” Colvin says. “But she’s not unaware of some of the things that I’ve bumped into. It’s just the language and some of the romantic stuff may be a little too bawdy.
“But as far as the depression and alcohol and drugs, she know about that stuff. Genetically she’s at risk, so we talk about it. I want her to know what it looks like. That’s the best I can offer her right now. Should she run into any problems, we talk and I can help.”
Colvin writes about walking through the fields outside of Vermillion, S.D., as a child, wearing her Beatle boots and wishing she was a member of the Fab Four. Imagine how different her daughter’s life is than her own.
“She likes it when there are perks for her,” Colvin laughs. “I sat in with Taylor Swift a few months back in Austin. That was a perk; she got to go to the show, get a great seat, even meet Taylor. So I’m cool when that happened; otherwise not too cool.”
In telling that story, Colvin leaves out the part where Swift stops the duet on “Sunny Came Home” to profess her lifelong admiration. Time goes on, the hero worshipper becomes the hero to others.
But with so many responsibilities to juggle these days, where does music stand on the list of priorities?
“I don’t feel an obligation to do a record, I don’t make a record unless it’s the right time, for better or worse,” Colvin says. “My daughter is at the top of that (priority) list. We’re all creative, whether you’re a stay-at-home mom or you do what I do.
“Luckily enough, I’m fine with the things that I have to do. It’s always a relief to get back home (from touring), but it’s always good to get back out again.”
So check the fields outside of small towns in the Midwest. Somewhere there’s a youngster singing “Sunny” or “All Fall Down” or “Diamond in the Rough,” hoping to be the next Shawn Colvin.
In the beginning, there was Emmylou Harris.
The legendary singer has been a friend, mentor, confidante, supporter and more nouns than can fit in a sentence to a generation of musicians since she first gained fame with Gram Parsons in the early 1970s.
“Everything goes back to Emmylou,” says Buddy Miller, who has played with Harris in different incarnations since joining her band Spyboy after the seminal “Wrecking Ball” album in 1995. “She’s really kind of unusual, a very special kind of person.”
Harris is one of the girls and Miller is their Buddy in Three Girls and Their Buddy, a 2009 tour. They will be joined by Shawn Colvin, who was in one of Miller’s early bands in Austin, Texas, in the late ’70s, and Patty Griffin, who is working on an album being produced by – guess who? – Miller.
Connections run deep in Harris’ world: once you’re in, you’re in for life, which is a good thing.
“I wanted to be Emmylou,” says Colvin, who like Miller and Griffin has a successful solo career when not playing with her buddies. “I covered a lot of Emmylou songs over the years.”
It’s likely that Miller would have thrived on his own, but he gives much of the credit to Harris.
“She allowed me to open up for as many dates as I wanted to,” Miller says, talking about the days with Spyboy that included Brady Blade on drums and Daryl Johnson on bass and percussion. He released his first solo album, “Your Love and Other Lies,” close to the same time as “Wrecking Ball,” so fans received added value for their entertainment dollar.
Miller’s association with Harris opened many doors, but the Fairborn, Ohio, native had the talent to take advantage of the opportunities. He is married to singer Julie Miller, with whom he has released three albums. Their latest, “Written in Chalk,” helped Miller earn five Americana Music Awards nominations, more than any other artist.
He has recorded five solo albums, produced and played on his wife’s solo albums, and was named Artist of the Decade in the final issue of No Depression magazine, the late and lamented chronicle of the alt-country (whatever that is) music scene.
Along the way, he has made friends with little folks (“Buddy is the nicest man in the world,” according to Brigitte DeKemper, who recently opened for Dave Alvin at the Southgate House and was thrilled that Miller took the time to play on her latest album) to the biggest stars (he played guitar on tour with Grammy Award winners Robert Plant and Alison Krauss).
“Robert was at a Spyboy gig in Dublin, and we talked to him outside after the show,” Miller recalls about meeting the Led Zeppelin singer. “We went out for a drink and we talked about old San Francisco psychedelic bands.”
From mundane beginnings sprout major projects. Plant sings harmony on “What You Gonna Do Leroy?” on “Written in Chalk,” and Miller hopes to work with him again.
“He might seem larger than life, but he was just right there with us,” Miller says of their relationship. “He offered to sing on (our) record, we didn’t have to ask.”
What could be better than discovering icons are just like you and me (well, sort of)?
“You don’t want to find out that your idols are jerks,” Colvin says, recounting her own tales of meeting her heroes. “I went to see James Taylor recently and sang a song with him.
“It was one of those ‘pinch me’ moments when you say to yourself ‘Are you kidding me?’ I vividly remember when I was 15 years old and my best friend ran over to my house with a single of ‘Fire and Rain.’ Life changed after that.”
Miller and Colvin speak of Harris with genuine affection about what she has means to them.
“One of the best things your heroes can give you is the chance to join them on stage,” Colvin says.