Shawn Phillips,
I'm a Loner
(Columbia-UK, 1965;
Wounded Bird Records, 1998)

Sometime in 1960, at about age 17 or so, Shawn Phillips bought himself a guitar, probably in Fort Worth, Texas where he grew up. It seems he practiced diligently because by the time he cut this, his first album five years later, he had become an accomplished guitarist, accomplished and talented. That, combined with the wide range of his beautiful voice, would seem to have been a winning formula but it wasn't until a hundred or so of his closest friends and admirers got together recently to produce this CD from that old monophonic vinyl that I ever heard of him.

I'm not sure why this CD was produced now. There is no explanation and there are no dates in the liner where the really annoying notes by Denis Preston seem to have been written in 1965 and not updated.

If Phillips was 22 in '65, he's a year or two older than I. That's germaine because it makes it easy for me to slip back into black and see myself serving coffee at the Queequeg on University Way in Seattle where so many musicians like Phillips played and sang songs yearning for love and social justice and graduate students wrote poetry on the napkins.

In that context, and given that Columbia produced it, this album should have sold. But Phillips regrettably had hit the end of an era. The Mersey sound was washing over everything, and acoustic 12-string and a beautiful voice weren't getting the breaks anymore.

Phillips wrote three of the twelve songs on the original record. In 1965, at age 22, he wasn't a particularly literate or accomplished lyricist. "Little Tin Soldier," derived from the old story of the tin soldier in love with the ballerina doll, starts out OK for a sad-sweet love story but the final analogy doesn't work. Love can be portrayed as fiery or as agape represented by the peaceful dove but the two are not analogous. "Nobody Listens" seems to have been written either to brag that Phillips was a friend of Lenny Bruce or to show to what a low register his voice could go, or both. Get past the trite lyrics and the guitar playing is outstanding. The real guitar tour de force on this album is Ochs' "The Bells," in which each bell, from the golden wedding bells to the melancholy iron bell is as clearly described by Phillips' guitar as it is by the words of the song.

"Solitude," the other Phillips original, works in the context of the age they were written for. The beautifully sung lyrics would have made it one of my favorites had I heard it in `65. These days, especially after having lived alone on a mountaintop for seven years, I have to smile at the youthful naivete in the imagery of life being black unless one has a someone who "sees with your eyes and hears with your ears."

This CD has a bonus track written by Phillips that wasn't on the original vinyl. "Doesn't Anybody Know My Name?" sounds like a post-Vietnam lament. It has all the poignance of Kenny Rogers' "Ruby (Don't take your love to town)" in that it describes a returned veteran, once whole and sought after whose live is now in shambles. The device of asking, in the refrain, for the train arrival times to express emotional desolation is not new to this song -- there's a song Ramblin' Jack Elliott sings that asks for train times -- but it works here when nobody comes to see a blind man take the train.

Phillips left the U.S. for England in the spring of 1965. Who knows why he left -- there's no discussion of that in the liner notes either -- but the whole feel of the CD is one of some kind of romantic ideal of the Loner defiantly stepping away from whatever it was and insisting that he's going to do it himself.

In the title song, Phillips sets himself up as a loner and drifter who, in the end, will be buried by a stranger. In the fourth cut, "The Pride of Man," our loner gets his vengeance as all he has rejected, his Babylon, is destroyed. On the seventh cut, "Hey Nelly Nelly," we're presented with Abraham Lincoln as archetypal loner who travels from town to town dispensing wisdom and who ends up being killed and then lamented "In the Hills of Shiloh."

Despite the outstanding guitar work and the gorgeous voice, some of the song choices made me smile. Although they further the theme of the loner, at 22 Phillips was much too young to be singing "It Was a Very Good Year" or "I'm Tired" but I'd really like to hear him sing them now. Although it's also a little "old" for a singer that age, "You've Heard My Voice," the last cut on the original vinyl was a good choice to showcase Phillips' vocal range as well as his mastery of the guitar.

Every once in a while, even the defiant loner softens and gets lonely or nostalgic and we get Rodgers and Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things" (the Brit producers spelled it "Favourite" here) sung just wistfully enough. Naturally, this defiant loner expects everyone to miss him terribly and to welcome him home with brass bands when he does return. Just as naturally, as expressed in the final, bonus cut, everyone has moved on and nobody knows his name.

Being a native Washingtonian, I can't escape comparing Phillips' voice favorably with his contemporary, Jimmy Rodgers from Camas, Wash. If you were a fan of Rodgers, you'll like Phillips' voice. For a solid nostalgia hit or if you are curious about coffeehouse singers way back when, I recommend this CD to you.

[ by J. Higgins-Rosebrook ]



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