Some Women Just Have A Gift For Music

Lucinda Williams AP Photo/Stew Milne

Sunday Morning contributor Bill Flanagan of MTV says some of the best new albums are coming from the ladies. He weighs in on new work from Patty Griffin, Lucinda Williams, Mavis Staples and Rickie Lee Jones.


I don't know if women are smarter than men but it does seem lately that female singers have more interesting things to say than a lot of male musicians do.

I don't mean to give points to the other team, but in the new records I'm hearing a lot of men limit themselves to a few narrow musical and thematic categories, while the woman seem free to break down walls and go wherever inspiration moves them.

Let's look at the evidence:

Patty Griffin is a songwriter's songwriter. Her work has been recorded by the Dixie Chicks, Reba McEntire, Emmylou Harris and many others, and "10 Million Miles," a musical based on her songs, has just opened in New York.

Patty Griffin's latest album is called "Children Running Through," and it might be the best record she's ever made. There's still the folk and country influences her fans expect, but Griffin moves toward R&B and a kind of ecstatic gospel singing on some of this material. It suits her. It's a warm, smart, grown-up piece of work.

Photos: Gifted Female Songwriters
Speaking of gospel — speaking for that matter of folk, country and R&B — Mavis Staples' latest album is called "We'll Never Turn Back." The voice of the Staples Singers has teamed up with producer Ry Cooder, another legend of American roots music. What an inspired couple they make. I was scared when I heard the premise of the record — new recordings of standards from the civil rights era. I thought, "Oh, I don't know, that sounds like 'Take Your Medicine, It's Good For You.'" But I put on the CD and forgot about the history lesson.

While these songs might have been written a long time ago out of longing for justice overdue, Mavis uses them now to express righteous anger for promises broken. You know what you get when you put the vitality of righteous anger into the forms of folk and gospel? You get rock 'n' roll. Mavis Staples has molded bits and pieces from 50 years ago into a great rock 'n' roll album. Don't miss it.

A whole different recombination of rock, soul and folk inspires Rickie Lee Jones' new CD, "The Sermon On Exposition Boulevard" - a collection of spirituals for lost souls. These are songs in the voices of characters in the background of the New Testament, someone in the crowd at the Sermon on the Mount, a Roman soldier who was in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion and is trying to understand what he saw. The songs struggle to make sense of transcendence. They are in the voice of ordinary people coming face-to-face with the miraculous and trying to work out what it means.

Jones is attempting something heroic here, to clear away our preconceptions and expectations about Jesus and try to imagine what it might have been like to hear that message for the first time.

"The Sermon On Exposition Boulevard" is a record that has no precedent.

Anyone else out there working at that level? Well, Lucinda Williams pretty much lives at that level. You can pick up any Lucinda album and you will come away with music that is raw and real, as well as being smart and rigorous. She's never made the same album twice, so if you're just starting out and want to play it safe, go for her Grammy-winning "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" or the folk-rock "Lucinda Williams."

But if you are already a Lucinda loyalist, you'll want to know that her latest album, "West," finds her close to the end of her rope, dealing with rotten boyfriends, the death of loved ones, and a general feeling that the ship is going down and there's no one at the wheel. It takes a real artist to shape anger and sadness into something that is compelling and useful to other people. Lucinda Williams is a blues singer in the best sense. She takes negative emotions and bad situations and holds them up so that the light shines through.

These days the pop charts are full of silly girls who seem to spend less time thinking about the music they make than the parties they go to and clothes they don't wear. Patty Griffin, Mavis Staples, Rickie Lee Jones and Lucinda Williams are all smart, experienced and immensely talented adults.

Their music may not get a lot of play on the radio, but their songs will still be speaking to and moving listeners when the pop tarts are forgotten.

The real thing's back in town.

Click here to watch Patty Griffin perform at The Artist Den in New York City
  • Caitlin Johnson

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