Shame on me for just discovering the music of Dudley Saunders. The Kentucky native has been performing is own brand of folk music since the early 90s, after perfecting his edgy style in performance art and film. With his history in storytelling, it is no surprise he should evolve into a folk artist, one who manages to take the formula of classic folk and put his own particular spin on it, bringing the form to something new and sounding fresh. His voice is brilliantly crisp and strong, never failing to hit the notes, each phrase developed in tone and content. As an out artist, he sings about issues that range from highly personal to larger themes, often intertwining the two.
When I put on the emergency lane, the most recent release, I had no idea what to expect. The 13-song album has rather unassuming packaging, so I slipped the disk in and hit play. Opening with Look For Me, it kicks off with a simple acoustic sound of guitar and drums, though it is quickly enriched by the addition of Dudley's vocals and more instrumentation. The song moves easily between painting a strong picture and adding a bit of haunted mist to the image during the chorus. Give a listen to a live performance of the song here.
Lyrically, the album unfolds like a classic American novel, more Steinbeck in content and Fitzgerald in tone, maybe even a bit of Isherwood during the later 'American' years. He tells the story of the people that inhabit Saunders' world, at times revealing the sordid underbelly of society with a loving eye, yet no romanticized view. The characters are real, certainly not well-off, and at times struggling. Their behaviors, from prostitute to addict, takes varying levels of danger and failure to act safely. Take, for example, the second cut on the album, Love Song For Jeffrey Dahmer. Written and sung from the perspective of the serial killer, it is at once lovely and yet disturbing. Sonically, it is a lovely song, but the lyrics tell a distractingly ugly tale. The Rain on 8th Avenue shifts the tone a bit, more to the impressionistic than real. But the prose-like lyrics, almost Ezra Pound-like, tell the tale of the hookers working 8th Avenue in the rain. Take Me Back Home Again picks up the tempo of the album, mirroring the characters desire to not be lonely. Well, you are getting the idea.
The stories might have a gritty realism to them, scenes from an urban life, but it wasn't told from a foreboding place, more from the point of view of the subject of the song. Saunders paints a rather evocative picture with a loving and deft hand, yet never takes it to a romantic level. I am kinda reminded of some of the great songs of Lou Reed and his chronicles of the people in his Greenwich Villages in the 70s and 80s. But Dudley's voice is more in the vein of a Chris Isaak, for me is a male version of Joni Mitchell. The vocals go beyond the role of narrator, elevated to another instrument that helps define the mood and tenor of songs. Here is The Winding Sheet, the 9th track from the album, and the official music video. The vocals are more evocative of 60 folk balladeers like Pete Seger or Noel 'Paul' Stookey, telling the story with a painters touch, not that of a documentarian.
So by the end of the album, Dudley Saunders had brought me into his world, in quite the stunning fashion; I hung on his every word. This man is amazingly talented. He lives in Los Angeles now, but I certainly hope I have the opportunity to see him perform live sometime, because I think it would be an amazing treat. I read that he is finishing up work on a new album, so perhaps a tour might be in the offing to support it in 2011. And, in case you didn't notice the pictures above, is really quite the hot daddy. You can check him out at his official website here. And you should check it out, for it has some interesting interactive things going on, and it evolves on a monthly basis.
I will leave you with another example of Dudley's music. The Undoing (Everyday) is a cut from a prior album, The Billy White Acre Sessions. It is a bit less impressionist and more lyrical in nature, and more linear in storyline as it showcases the everyday struggles of many people fighting addictions.
In 2009, the emergency lane was named Best Album by the OUTMusic organization. Having just experienced, I know exactly why. You can check it out for yourself on iTunes here, on Amazon here, or at CD Baby here. It could tide you over quite nicely until his new album is available. i know I can't wait!