Back in 1997 Will Oldham released a split single (with Rising Shotgun) of songs by ‘country outlaw’ artist David Allen Coe. Larry Jon Wilson might be considered another of these ‘country outlaw’ artists who eschewed commercialism in favour of staying true to the grit and grease of his music. Unlike Coe, who released in excess of thirty albums, Wilson only recorded four albums in the 70s. He also appears on the Heartworn Highways soundtrack. Herein lies a tribute to Wilson who died in 2010 at the age of 69. The A-side is performed by The Black Swans, the B-side by Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.
The Man I Wish For You… by The Black Swans, a band I’d never heard of until I came across this record. They’re from Ohio, play “sadly beautiful folk-influenced indie rock” according to All Music Guide. I can’t find this song on any Larry Jon Wilson album so I have no idea what the original sounds like. DeCicca has what I would describe as a “blurry” baritone, so it’s not easy to catch all the lyrics here, though maybe he’s singing in a Wilsonesque way. So, after grasping what words I could, I get the impression that Larry Jon is not “the man I wish for you” though he once was with her. ie. “You used to think that I could be the man for you,” and he doesn’t sound regretful that he’s not. In fact, in one of the best parts of the song, he almost sounds like he’s teasing: “But I’m the man you know can offer / Morning loving and midnight coffee / Happy endings, evening love calls / Rolling hills and waterfalls / Trembles when it touches you.” So, it’s a nostalgic love song, fraught with an ambivalent sense of longing for what once was, but which could never be again. He “can’t give you nothing” and he “can’t tell you nothing.” By song end he only asks that you “think of me now and again / Cos I’ll think of you.” The music has a country flavour, a banjo plunking through the song, slow shuffle beat, midwest indie guitar, DeCicca close miked, his low blurry voice merging with the bass. The vocal is recorded a little too raw and loud, a product of DeCicca’s bari-tones, which makes it a little hard to enjoy. That said, the lack of a decent dynamic range makes it likeable and affecting in its simple homespun style.
Bertrand My Son… comes from Wilson’s debut album New Beginnings (1975). You can hear Wilson’s original on Youtube, “a gruff papa-bear voice” according to one reviewer and a “flannel-warm baritone” according to another. Wilson began his song with a short introduction to Bertrand, his son, born with deformed legs, or rather, as Oldham repeats in the introduction, now changed to a third-person point of view, “He was born with his feet and legs different from ours.” And continuing the story, “He had a lot of casts and braces and things. And when Bertrand was two and a half, Larry Jon wrote this song for him.” So is there irony in the fact that Palace-era Oldham would eventually discover such heartworn sincerity? And not just sincerity, but the sincerity of sincerity, which is no different to the sincerity of irony, which means it’s always existed in his muse, that doubleness of intention. Oldham sings the song in a warm, smooth tone, genuine, pure, a female voice backing him in certain parts. A whining violin yearns across the melody. A glockenspiel tinkles the child theme in between verses. In “Bertrand My Son,” the father-narrator lays his pain out, yearns for the day his son can play “baseball, volleyball” or “football, basketball,” or “for the day your twisted feet go dancing.” He’s praying for “a taste of the fruit of the miracle tree.” He wonders if his son suffers “watching all the other children dance and play,” and concludes that as long as Bertrand “lives on the fruit of the tree of love” he’ll end up dancing and playing someday soon; possibly he’s referring to heaven. It’s worth looking more closely at this song though. “Your twisted feet”? “Daddy’s … wonderin’ if you’re sufferin’”? Is there a great big belly laugh deep in the heart of this song or what? Oldham makes one tiny change to one of the lyrics, yet it’s a change that signals something less than sincere. On the original Wilson sings, “Bertrand my son, daddy’s living for the day your twisted feet go dancing / From the dark to the light of the joys that other children know.” Now look at Oldham’s version: ““Bertrand my son, daddy’s living for the day your twisted feet go dancing / From the dark to the light of the joys that the other children know.” That “the” inserted in there, I ask, what’s that for? It’s unnecessary and slightly awkward, the very awkwardness suggesting, especially in the way Oldham slips it mechanically into his phrasing, that he’s somehow mimicking the awkwardness of Bertrand’s legs. I know that sounds crazy, but for me, it niggles at the sincerity behind Oldham’s version. By inserting “the,” the song’s point of view momentarily shifts away from Dad and into Bertrand’s mind. For a brief moment Oldham identifies with Bertrand, but it teeters precariously on a knife edge of politically incorrect humour, or an acknowledgement that Wilson’s original somehow doesn’t quite carry the full weight of his supposed empathy. It’s a song about Wilson’s disappointment rather than Bertrand’s situation. That’s my take. Nevertheless, it’s a very pretty song, no denying that, mournful, ringing acoustic guitar, a fading warmth.
So it turns out, a new Larry Jon Wilson album was released to acclaim in the UK in 2008. Jerry DeCicca of The Black Swans had worked with Wilson on this album, hence the connection. When the album hadn’t performed as well as hoped, Will Oldham got involved and brought it to Drag City who released it in the US. And then DeCicca and Oldham recorded this tribute soon after Wilson left us to be with Bertrand.