Dear Bill Callahan,
Can I call you Bill? I feel like I know you so well, those playful guitar picking skills and that particular baritone. We've been on so many journeys together, long nights on the record player, road trips, and the occasional campsite. I've seen you in five cities, but never in San Francisco. I tried once, but my date thought he could buy tickets at the door. What a fool. I should have left him out in the cold that night at the Independent. You're playing two shows this weekend and even though they are both sold out and I'm going by myself, I'll be in solidarity with my fellow Bill Callahan fans, listening in awe.
As someone who has spent a fair amount of time in the west surrounded by cowboys, I always imagined you as the strong and silent type. When I saw you as Smog for the first time at the Parish in Austin, TX nearly a decade ago, I was at odds with myself. You were rocking out, as much as a man in double denim and boots, pretty much alone on a stage singing incredibly deliberate and calculated songs can. What exactly was I witnessing and why was there a feeling of elation followed by peaceful calm in my head after the show? I fell in love that night, and have never missed an opportunity to see you live since. I've also never seen you dance like that again. Maybe one of the two nights in San Francisco will be the time.
In a music world filled with production bells and whistles, and a visual world overflowing with screens, effects, and hashtags, you force perspective. You force us to hear, to remember and to see. With just a few words, precise chords, and impeccably timed language you can place the listener in a quiet place meant for experiencing nature and exploring its glory. Dream River, your newest release, has been received with the highest acclaim from both fans and critics. Where twang might normally reside in country-influenced songs, you make the electric guitar whine. These tracks are full-bodied and age well with each listen. Still heavily influenced by the wild, this record takes on a more astute study of human connection. Bill, are you bewildered or intrigued?
Photo: Hanly Banks
Connection is about hanging on every word. It's about taking into account what the other person might feel when you express an opinion, drinking in their every response and trying not to miss a blink, smile, or breath. You sing, "All I want to do is make love to you with a careless mind. The true spring is in you," on "Spring." Previously it seemed the only connection you were actively seeking to understand was with nature and how small man is by comparison, but now, now there's someone else. Even the strong and silent types deserve to find another for the journey.
"I really like it when I take the control from you and you take the control from me, I really am a lucky man flying this small plane." The language is simple, yet sophisticated. I nod in agreement with your sentiments, having experienced similar feelings in my relationships to others and to the natural world. You probably don't even need firelight when you're wandering the desert at night, it would disrupt the pale cool moonlight from above. I'm drawn to the landscape you've created on Dream River; there are so many layers to listen to, jazz flutes and hand percussion trickling in and out. Your iconic guitar playing complimented by strings and echoes that can only be likened to a piercing eagle cry.
Most of the time I'm just amazed by your use of musical arrangement combined with meticulous vocal delivery. It makes me question why stripped-down lyrics are so incredibly powerful and important. That seems like a question that could be easily answered by any run-of-the-mill poet or intellectual, but I struggle with why it works so well coming from you as an artist. And then on "Summer Painter" you unleash the verse, "Like a beaver is a damn builder you never really quit." Reminding me that we must all push on because without the search, without the connection, and certainly without the poetry, what separates us from that beaver besides her will to work?
It's hard to pinpoint your musical genius. Even though I have been a fan since that warm night in Austin so many years ago, I have always wondered why and how exactly your music has appealed to such a large audience. It isn't the most accessible. Simplistic and complicated, slow and tailored, dark and full of truth, light and airy -- it is rife with contradictions. Your queries on Dream River are what have inspired me to write this letter rather than say what other critics have in so many words, that this record is arguably a masterpiece. Perhaps it is because the marriage of nature and the essence of human existence has found a way to reside in the same space for you. In poetry.
Sincerely Your Often Stupefied but Adoring Fan,
Bill Callahan plays The Great American Music Hall on November 16 and The Chapel November 17, 2013. Both shows are sold out so hang on to your tickets for dear life, but should you need any further information visit Great American Music Hall's ticket page or The Chapel's event site. Dream River was released on Drag City earlier this month and is available through most major music retailers.