John Lilly,
State Songs
(independent, 2017)

In college days, spent mostly in a state university on the Minnesota side of the Red River, my pals and I somewhere got the notion that North Dakota's state song consisted of some ghastly concoction known as "You Oughta Go to North Dakota." If fueled by a sufficient supply of cheap beer, we would amuse ourselves by bursting into See the cattle and the wheat and the folks that can't be beat. Such a song, a succinct tribute to the state's Babbittesque business culture, does exist; I know that because I just looked it up. It isn't, however, the state song. The real state song, to wit "North Dakota Hymn," is even more dismal: With thy prairies wide and free/ All thy sons and daughters love thee.

There are decent songs about states, of course -- Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas surely lead the pack, at least in quantity -- but the officially designated ones are generally terrible and mercifully obscure. Sometimes a state will adopt a popular song, an independently composed and commercially successful celebration of the place's alleged virtues, as its own anthem. But as a general principle, certified state songs are not worth the time it takes to concede their presence in the far backwaters of consensus reality.

Thus it was with bewilderment that I greeted the content of a package bearing John Lilly's West Virginia return address. My first thought, I confess, was You can't be serious. My knees buckled when I spotted "Gotta Go to North Dakota" in the table of contents. Hands shaking, I swallowed hard and marshaled the courage to investigate further. It turned out that all dozen songs are Lilly creations. When the time came actually to play the disc, I was unsettled to find that State Songs is -- hardly the predictable outcome -- listenable and entertaining.

I still don't know, however, how one writes a paean to a bordered spot on the map to which one has no emotional attachment. Having some songwriting experience, I can't imagine composing an anthem to any state but the one in which I have spent the bulk of my life. I genuinely love Minnesota, even if that affection is tested annually, as it is at the moment, with the almost always premature arrival of winter. (As I write these words in early November, it's less than 30 deg. F. outside, a bare hint of the arctic terrors on their way. And I live in the southern part.) I have no doubt that Lilly favors his native West Virginia, the subject of the 12th and last cut, but the others, ranging from Maine to Idaho, seem products of a non-native's imagined enthusiasm.

Such reservations aside, one has to concede that this is a fun record. Mostly, Lilly -- who has an ear for engaging melodies -- puts the songs into settings that seem appropriate to their individual musical landscapes (with the exceptions of Kentucky and Mississippi, most recognized for their associations with bluegrass and blues, neither genre in evidence anywhere on the CD). "Roaming Through Wyoming" and "Goodbye to Idaho," for example, fall somewhere between authentic-seeming cowboy ballads and the faux-range sounds of the Sons of the Pioneers. In fact, stylistically overall, the approach owes largely to the country music of the 1930s and 1940s, which means that much of it swings in the style of Bob Wills and contemporaries. Lilly manages this splendidly, and that occasions contentment and mood elevation on the listener's end.

As for North Dakota: well, there is the already mentioned "Gotta Go to North Dakota," which unless an extraordinary coincidence tells me Lilly knows of the eminently deridable ditty. To my relief the Lilly version is a chugging rockabilly workout that, at least for its duration on the sound system, will almost persuade you that you oughta go to North Dakota.

music review by
Jerome Clark

11 November 2017

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