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Off the Beaten Tracks – Shawn Colvin, a survivor’s tale part 2

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AT the end of part one we left the Shawn Colvin story with her 1993 marriage to Richard Thompson’s sound manager Simon Tassano seemingly having brought stability to a life dogged by drink and depression. Sadly, by 1996 the relationship was on the rocks, inspiring A Few Small Repairs, a concept album about divorce which marked the triumphant resumption of the Colvin/John Leventhal team. It was to be Shawn’s commercial breakthrough. The sleeve features a painting of a three-eyed woman holding a lit match, which inspired the dark song Sunny Came Home about a woman setting fire to her house to erase her troubled past. Released as a single, this shot to No 7 in the US and No 3 in Canada, while just sneaking into the UK Top 30. It was named Song of the Year and Record of the Year at the Grammy Awards.

And that’s just the first track. Next up is the powerful, uncompromising Get Out of This House 

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Go jump in the lake go ride up the hill
Get out of this house
It’s a house of your making it’s a house of ill will
Get out of this house.

Phew! That’s telling him.

Track three is The Facts About Jimmy, followed by You and the Mona Lisa, both terrific. I Want it Back is another bitter slice of autobiography.

I can’t give love, I don’t know how
I write in code so you won’t know
I was on drugs, I took a nap
I didn’t mean it, I want it back.

The album hits another purple patch with Wichita Skyline84,000 Different Delusions and Suicide Alley, followed by What I Get Paid For, co-written with the New Zealander and former Split Enz frontman Neil Finn.

The final track, Nothin’ on Me, typifies Leventhal’s huge contribution to this album. It is one of nine songs he wrote with Colvin while he plays guitars throughout and arranges strings and horns. Oh, and he’s the producer too.

Having moved to Austin, Texas, Colvin married a local photographer, Mario Erwin, and became pregnant. In 1998 she hurriedly recorded Holiday Songs and Lullabies, based on a children’s book by Maurice Sendak, but it was not until five years after the release of the platinum-selling A Few Small Repairs that she recorded her follow-up.

‘For a long time, I felt like I failed myself, my career and my record company,’ she told the New York Times. ‘I took a break. And that’s not what you do after a huge record and a No 1 hit. I was 42 years old, and motherhood was something I wanted. I paid a price. And then it was kind of a perfect storm — my mood problems, the postpartum depression, and the pressure of following up a huge record.’

In 2001 came Whole New You, which Leventhal again produces while this time he co-writes every song. The title track betrays a strong Beatles influence with George Harrison-style guitar. Bonefields features James Taylor on harmony vocals. Although the album is mainly a celebration of family life, Another Plane Went Down is a strange and intriguing exception.

So many other dreams
The ones where I’m on Death Row
The ones where I don’t know why.

The final track, I’ll Say I’m Sorry Now, describes the effect her daughter Caledonia has had on her life.

Parents should say they’re sorry

More often than they do

So let it begin with me.

Five more years would go by before the release of These Four Walls, by which time Shawn’s second marriage was over. The front cover shows her looking wistful with her Texas home in the background while in the rear picture she is gazing at the house with longing.

The title track begins despairingly:

I’m gonna die in these four walls
I had enough and I tried it all

and continues:

I’m gonna miss your southern drawl
A baby’s footsteps in an empty hall
And every little thing I can ever recall
In these four walls.

The ever-loyal Leventhal is once again in control, producing the album and playing the bulk of the backing music. In the sleeve notes Colvin salutes him, writing: ‘The gratitude I have for my partnership with John Leventhal is mighty. It doesn’t seem possible that we’ve been creative co-conspirators for 25 years. If you’d told me when I met him that we would be writing songs and working together today I wouldn’t have been able to comprehend it. Such is the surprise and humility of age. I have known him half my life. He is part of me and he is a bloody genius.’

This is such a strong collection of songs that it’s hard to pick out the highlights. I suggest you try the whole album on YouTube and then buy it. Just a mention of the final track, a sweet cover version of the Bee Gees song Words which Colvin says ‘we recorded in the time it takes to listen to it’.

Apart from a live album in 2009, Shawn was busier battling her demons than releasing records. She made another comeback, however, in 2012 with All Fall Down. This was produced in Nashville by her old mucker Buddy Miller and includes contributions from such luminaries as Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Bill Frisell and Jakob Dylan. A standout track is American Jerusalem,  which the Rolling Stone reviewer said ‘will resonate for anyone who ever hated the Big Apple, even for a New York minute’. Also the love-gone-wrong songs Knowing What I Know Now and Anne of the Thousand Days

The album’s release coincided with the publication of an autobiography, Diamond in the Rough, which Colvin describes as a ‘stick-with-it, keep-pushing-through survival story’. It’s a laconic, unself-pitying tale of misery at the hands of a long, long line of men. ‘I hope it’s comical for readers to keep track of them,’ she said. ‘That was my intention.’

She told the New York Times that she had no problems writing about her depression and drink problems, but worried about adding to the long line of confessional celebrity memoirs. ‘Who’s going to care? I’m not Obama. And my drinking career is a joke compared to Keith Richards’s. I had to get over that a little bit and just believe there were parts in there that are universal. When I encountered people in my life that were honest about the tough stuff — alcoholism or depression — it helped me enormously. I started to look at the book as something that might help people, instead of just what’s been interesting about my life.’

In September 2015 came a second album of other people’s songs, Uncovered. Among the more interesting clips of a low-key collection is a brooding version of Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street, minus the saxophone of the original but plus backing vocals by David Crosby. The great Robbie Robertson song Acadian Driftwood, from the Band album Northern Lights – Southern Cross, gets a welcome airing as does John Fogerty’s Lodi, which originally saw the light of day as the B-side of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising.

The following year saw the release of Colvin and Earle, a Buddy Miller-produced collaboration between Shawn and the Texan troubadour Steve, a fellow addict whose track record of marital disasters makes hers look like small beer. Earle has been divorced no fewer than seven times and the song You’re Right, I’m Wrong concludes: ‘Maybe the truth is neither one of us ever loved anybody at all.’ The lonely You’re Still Gone is another highlight, as are The Way That We Do and Someday, the Earle song which you will recall Colvin recorded on Cover Girl more than 20 years earlier.

Looking back even further, her debut album Steady On was re-released as an all-acoustic 30th anniversary edition in 2019. Well worth a listen.

At the age of 65, Shawn Colvin’s only companions at her home in Austin are her cats, but she is not downhearted. As she once said, ‘I’d like to think I’ve overcome. I was not a person that was supposed to survive New York City, that was ever going to write my own songs or have children. I was going to have my bar gigs, make my $50 a night and self-medicate. And it turned out a lot better than that.’

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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