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Clay Bartlett – A Good Straight Dose of Americana

Posted by May 29th, 2005 No Comments »

One time I met Clay Bartlett at Hattie's Hat. He was really nice and stuff.Clay Bartlett
Fixiin" to Break Down
Lu Belle Records
By Lisa M. Smith

Clay Bartlett has the kind of name that just seems right for the kind of music he plays. Somehow you know it’s not going to be mid-80s Italian electronica, and probably is going to include some pedal steel and a few lines about whiskey or bad luck. Bartlett’s past may or may not include the whiskey and the bad luck – but we know for sure it includes playing with Gerald Collier and Eddie Spaghetti, among others.

Now moving into solo songwriter territory, Bartlett makes his eight song debut with, Fixin’ to Break Down. Tastefully produced, it is an appropriate expansion of the one-man folk act that’s been keeping the fires alive. Bartlett will vouge for a list of influences that includes Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan and Gram Parsons. I hear some John Prine or Steve Earle in there, and when the harmonies kick in, it might be evidence of Bartlett’s foray into the Harry Smith Anthology of Folk Music.


One time I met Clay Bartlett at Hattie's Hat. He was really nice and stuff.Clay Bartlett
Fixiin" to Break Down
Lu Belle Records
By Lisa M. Smith

Clay Bartlett has the kind of name that just seems right for the kind of music he plays. Somehow you know it’s not going to be mid-80s Italian electronica, and probably is going to include some pedal steel and a few lines about whiskey or bad luck. Bartlett’s past may or may not include the whiskey and the bad luck – but we know for sure it includes playing with Gerald Collier and Eddie Spaghetti, among others.

Now moving into solo songwriter territory, Bartlett makes his eight song debut with, Fixin’ to Break Down. Tastefully produced, it is an appropriate expansion of the one-man folk act that’s been keeping the fires alive. Bartlett will vouge for a list of influences that includes Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan and Gram Parsons. I hear some John Prine or Steve Earle in there, and when the harmonies kick in, it might be evidence of Bartlett’s foray into the Harry Smith Anthology of Folk Music.

Allen Terhune’s lap steel and dobro work (well, resonator guitar) is, as the liner notes say, "pure genius" as it rides and leans over hills of song, and seems to fill an echoing chamber in "Clay’s Blues." Other friends who contributed their talents include Chris Cline and Kevin Suggs of Evangeline, Kevin Warner (formerly of Evangeline, and currently with Jesse Sykes), Jake London (whether you’re aware of it or not, you’ve seen this guy in the audience at the Tractor a dozen times), Russ Reidner, Rachel Niman and Clay Bartlett as himself (he was a multi-instrumentalist on the album).

Van Zandt is clearly an influence, from the hard-truth lyrics down to the enunciation of words and implied accent. I thought maybe Bob Dylan’s legendary recording of "Moonshiner" was also one of the driving forces behind Bartlett’s creations (at least lyrically, but also in vocal phrasing). Turns out that he is more fascinated with a version by “old Kentucky guy” Roscoe Holcomb.

I have some thoughts on “Moonshiner.” I seem to know a lot of guys who stand in awe of this particular song, most of them songwriters themselves (probably explaining why it’s been covered so many times). More than one wearied alt-country troubadour has had songs about whiskey bottles, old friends and women who did them wrong or never did them at all. There’s a distinct tone to the Dylan Moonshiner aesthetic, one of creeping quiet and poor lighting – a grown man’s trip into the metaphoric fetal position – where any sense of irony or humor has been eroded to near absence during the fleeting moment of introspection marked by the song – while knowing that all this seriousness will soon give way to that same old bottle and that same circle of good-hearted, shit-talking friends.

And so it is from this recoiled vantage point that Clay Bartlett holds the mirror of song to himself and the world – but not constantly. The sunny, dobro-filled “Airstream” describes the psychologically liberating moment of letting go and leaving the drama of youth (“rambling and gambling” / “sinking or swimming”) behind, in exchange for the path of least resistance (“floating on the waves”). The songs never stray from a folk/alt-country formula, so the album is not for those seeking innovation or unexpected bends in the road. However, it should please those who appreciate a good straight dose of Americana. – (7/10)


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