Rosalie Sorrels,
Strangers in Another Country
(Red House, 2008)

Bruce "Utah" Phillips died at 73 on May 23, 2008, having had sufficient impact on the larger culture, otherwise largely oblivious to folk performers, to merit obituary notices in newspapers from The New York Times on down. A hard-left ideologue in the fashion of Joe Hill, Ralph Chaplin and Woody Guthrie, Phillips lived the life -- he'd been a hobo and persecuted activist (for the feebly extant Industrial Workers of the World) in the very conservative state from which he took his nickname -- and brought what many thought as "authenticity" to the program.

I can't define what authenticity is, though like most people who have cogitated on the matter I like to think I recognize it when I see it. I think it's safe to say Phillips was both a character and a man who worked hard at being one. A legendarily entertaining stage personality, he was as proficient a storyteller as he was a composer. (As a vocalist he was merely adequate to the task, and he was charmingly modest and jocular about that limitation.) He was the most popular -- you could add adored -- act on the American folk circuit in the 1970s, when folk as a genre of popular music had fallen so far out of fashion that many folk singers, Phillips to his credit not among them, wouldn't own up to the job description.

In common with hosts of others, I knew him slightly. He recognized me on those occasions, not frequent, that brought us within conversation range, though I don't think he ever remembered my name. I spoke with him enough, however, to validate suspicions that his politics were not mine. I recall a barroom exchange -- Phillips wasn't drinking by then, let me make clear; he had sobered up after wrestling down the road musician's occupational demon -- in which he remarked, with disarming casualness, that people shouldn't have the right to vote the wrong way. He seemed to admire the Soviet Union.

Little of this, happily, had any deleterious effect on his songwriting. He created a number of exceptional songs, mostly inspired by his chosen home, the American West, about which he remained at once loving and bracingly unsentimental. He saw it as a beautiful but cruel place, populated with underdogs -- hobos, miners, cowboys, radicals -- who as often as not came to bitter ends, crushed by power or circumstance. (Not that Phillips, a kind of Mark Twain figure, was humorless; anything but, actually. But the humor was mostly in his stories, not in his songs.) His early "Rock Salt & Nails," first recorded by Flatt & Scruggs and since then by many others, is something of a standard as modern folk songs go. But unlike many of his later pieces, it has no larger socio-political subtext. It's a fierce, angry break-up song expressed in piercingly original images.

It isn't on Strangers in Another Country, his old friend Rosalie Sorrels's brand-new tribute to him. Nor should it be, because it's been covered plenty. (Steve Young's reading is the one I always come back to.) But three of my favorites are here: "Starlight on the Rails," "Goodnight-Loving Trail" and "Ashes on the Sea." The last of these concerns, on one level, the disposition of Woody Guthrie's remains; on another level, it's a broad meditation on death and memory. There are precious few more poignant songs on either the first subject or the second.

There is also no more soulful a Phillips interpreter than Sorrels, who knew Bruce before he became Utah -- or, in grandiose moments, "U. Utah Phillips, the Golden Voice of the Great Southwest." Lots of good people join her: Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Bryan Bowers, Jay Ungar, Molly Mason, Peggy Seeger, my old compadre Dakota Dave Hull and other worthies. The songs (interspersed with short readings) were produced in New York City, Minneapolis and Boston with varied personnel, but Strangers does not sound scatter-shot at all. To the contrary, it's musically cohesive and never less than whole in each of its parts. Sorrels, a warm and appealing singer who puts an understated jazz lilt into her phrasing, has always been a distinctive voice on the folk scene, no less so at 75.

At least one other Phillips tribute disc is out there -- Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin's Heart Songs (Rounder, 1997) -- and interestingly, only two songs ("Scofield Mine Disaster" and "Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia") overlap. The versions don't sound much the same, and neither do the two CDs. Play them one after another, and be thankful. The universe gave us only one Utah Phillips.

review by
Jerome Clark

16 August 2008

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