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Off the Beaten Tracks: Shawn Colvin, a survivor’s tale

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LIFE has hardly been a cakewalk for Shawn Colvin. Addiction, anorexia, depression and a long series of unsuitable men, to name but a few of her problems. Yet, as with that other great confessor Joni Mitchell, she has managed to turn her tribulations into some inspiring songs delivered in a voice once described as ‘fragile as antique glass, sultry as smoke’.

Shawna Lee Colvin was born the second of four siblings on January 10, 1956, in Vermillion, South Dakota. Her father was a keen guitarist and banjo player, and the family home was always filled with folk music while the young Shawna was a keen member of the church choir. At the age of ten she taught herself to play guitar and later formed a duo with a fellow pupil at high school in Carbondale, Illinois.

Graduating a year early, she attended Southern Illinois University where she spent more time listening to Joni, Laura Nyro and Robbie Robertson than studying. She played rock and folk songs in clubs and soon decided that music would be her career. At 24, however, she had to take a break after straining her vocal cords while struggling to be heard over a raucous electric band.

In 1980 she moved to New York and joined the Buddy Miller Band, led by a country singer and future record producer from Fairborn, Ohio. The bass player was John Leventhal, who soon bonded with Colvin thanks to a mutual appreciation of the music of Ry Cooder. The romance did not last but their working relationship would endure. In 1983 Shawn began playing solo in folk clubs along the East Coast where she built up a solid following and a substantial drink habit. Her big break came in 1987 when she sang backing vocals on Suzanne Vega’s hit single Luka and joined Vega on a European tour. The following year she released a cassette titled Live Tape and was snapped up by Columbia Records.

In 1989 came her debut album, Steady On. This comprises six Colvin/Leventhal compositions and four by Shawn alone. The sound is very much of its time, with lots of electronics and drum programming, but the material is strong enough to stand up even now. The title track was released as a single and sold well.

Other highlights include Diamond in the RoughShotgun Down The Avalanche, Stranded and the final track, The Dead of the Night. 

Steady On won Colvin a Grammy Award as Best Contemporary Folk Recording and she toured the world to promote it, alongside the great Richard Thompson. ‘I had to learn a bunch of his songs, which meant learning chord combinations I’d never have thought of,’ she told Guitar Player magazine. ‘His melodies and chord progressions astounded me. Since then, I’ve wanted to really push myself and take my playing to odd places that it’s never been before.’

For her next album, 1992’s Fat City, Shawn had planned a series of songs about accepting spinsterhood but changed tack after falling for Thompson’s sound man Simon Tassano. Her ex, Leventhal, co-produced some of the tracks but in the main Larry Klein was in charge in his home studio. His wife at the time being Joni Mitchell, this gave Colvin an introduction to her heroine. ‘Meeting Joni was a moment I had been waiting for all my life,’ she said at the time. The stellar list of musicians on the record includes Thompson, David Lindley, Jim Keltner and, on Hammond organ, one Booker T Jones.

Fat City gets off to a great start with Polaroids, possibly my favourite Colvin song. For her first recorded cover version, she picks Tenderness on the Block, co-written by Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon and taken from Zevon’s classic second album Excitable Boy. Next comes Round of Blues, co-written with Klein. Longest track is the moody, seven-minute Set The Prairie On Fire. 

Fat City concludes with the beautiful I Don’t Know Why, which left the critics ecstatic. One described it as ‘one of the most brilliantly conceived and executed songs of this decade’. The record failed to set the charts alight, with radio programmers regarding Colvin as too folky to fit into the pop mainstream. However she amassed a strong fan base, telling an interviewer: ‘I haven’t sold a zillion records but these people who come out to see me I think will always be around in some numbers. That’s a good place to be, in my opinion. I’m not fabulously wealthy and I don’t get recognised on the street, but I’ve got a really, really good job.’

In 1993 Colvin and Tassano were married and the following year she released Cover Girl, 12 tracks all written by other artists. These include Tom Waits’s Looking For The Heart of Saturday Night, Judee Sill’s There’s a Rugged Road, Steve Earle’s SomedayDylan’s You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go and a lovely version of the Talking Heads song This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody). The girl certainly has taste.

In coming weeks we’ll resume the Shawn Colvin story with her about to make her chart breakthrough. 

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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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