Ooooh, Child: Valerie Carter's Stone's Throw To Heaven

It was the cutest hat. Slouchy and short brimmed, close to the head like a cloche, but limper. There was a ribbon band, rumpled and all the way around the crown, with some antique-looking flowers – possibly pansies, possibly posies -- pinned just above the temple behind the eye that was cast in shadow.

It was ragamuffin chic, slightly waifish, slightly bohemian, definitely post-hippie. The mousey brown hair hung straight – and the eyes, knowing a bit too much, looked straight into me. Or possibly straight out, as the poster hung above the racks of 8-tracks, that were hung behind locked glass sliders in the suburban strip mall record store.

7 March 2017


Rickie Lee Jones may or may not have happened yet, but there was a sense that with Linda Ronstadt ascending – and Emmylou Harris also rising as the hippie princess of hillbilly music by way of Laurel Canyon – eclectic girls were about to be “in favor.” Bonnie Raitt, who’d captured my imagination with “Angel from Montgomery,” was her own continent, one draped in the blues, just as Joni Mitchell was an émigré from folk and Carole King had moved beyond the tundra of Tin Pan Ally,


Valerie Carter was cute as bug. Like an earthier, yet more worldly and sophisticated version of the groovy babysitters I idolized. She seemed beyond running off with the Children of God religious sect, or getting busted bringing a lid of grass back from Mexico, or even just having the misfortune of a bad acid trip at the Rapid Transit platform under the Terminal Tower. This was a sophisticated kind of squalor for sure.


I pinched that ten dollar bill from Christmas or the Honor Roll or whatever my grandmother had pressed it upon me, and looked up. I didn’t know what sepia was then, only thought it was an old black and white from long ago that somehow held the image of a modern girl who’d distilled flapper ennui, free love innocence and Willa Cather and John Steinbeck’s post-Dust Bowl starkly gaunt forbearance.

I’d had my heart set on something else, but the hat got me. As did her utterly guileless knowing. Whatever it was, I wanted in. I just hoped it didn’t suck.


Fender Rhodes, literally electric keyboards in cases the size of writing desks, have this velvety bell tone to them. A few descending chords, passing notes littered between, a rising brass section, and a voice caressing the words, “Oooh, child, things are gonna get easier…” I melted right into the dust and shellac’ed  hardwood floor of our airless attic.

How did this woman I’d never met, never heard of get it so completely. A family rife with strife, we were anything but a Norman Rockwell portrait – and I was anything but the classic bright shiny high achiever that I’d learned to show the world. Though I achieved and shone, what roiled beneath the surface – doubt, anxiety, concern for and about those around me – was a powerful churning.


And in one verse of a song made popular by The Five Stairsteps, I felt like things could get better. A weightless seemed to lift up from my carcass, drifting soft and without gravity. No imperative or directive, no empiric evidence given, just the caress of that voice promising that this, too, shall pass was the agency of my condition.


Valerie Carter had that gift: she could make you believe impossible things with a tone that was somewhere between ridiculously expensive satin and the lushest sink-into-it velvet. Her soprano, like the embodiment of afternoon or first morning sunlight, glistened in your ears, somehow moved beneath your neural centers like a glider on a balmy, still night.

Even more wondrous were all the phases Just A Stone’s Throw passed through. Aural pictures painted against economical playing – the almost Tom Waits’ free noir of the well-past closing time’s wash-out “Back to Blue Some More,” the churning gospel soul of the title track, the faltering reggae undertow of “Ringing Doorbells in the Rain,” the raw hillbilly yearn of “Face of Appalachia,” not to mention the Earth, Wind + Fire-backed blue-eyed funk of “City Lights.”


Rumor had it – cause once I knew, I started hoovering up any scrap of information I could find – she was Lowell George’s girl. Little Feat’s “Fat Man in the Bath Tub,” with a proclivity for overalls and a musical gumbo that could sweat the Crescent City’s grisgris with the fringe of country and the undulation of rhythm & blues understood hybrid vigor. Carter’s rare instrument, her tone but also her ability to turn emotions inside out, was suited to it all.


Before I was a music critic, I didn’t bother with the delineations, just the way the music made me feel. Stone’s Throw made me real in a hopeful way, my hunger for knowing, tasting, feeling many things more rational than merely the product lacking focus from my dyslexia. The songs dipped into so many veins and wells of emotions, it suited my not-quite-teenage hormonal swings like a second skin.


And that girl on the cover? That was the me I’d be in a perfect world… without a uniform, expectations, a limited budget, my mother harping, the ghosts behind my eyes. She was cool, and funky, and hip, and somehow just shabby enough to not be an uptight rich girl at Beachwood Place, the expensive mall with a real Saks Fifth Avenue in a suburb near our modest brick home.

She had cooler friends, too. Linda Ronstadt, Little Feat’s Lowell George and Billy Payne, James Taylor. Earth, Wind & Fire! Lots of names I knew from the back of the records, people I spent hours with – and felt like I had relationships with based on the songs they wrote or sang. They scraped at what my mundane existence was made of, and somehow made my heart flicker with a desire that seemed more.

Even the boy she loved – that damned “Cowboy Angel” – seemed like the kinda romantic foil I could understand. As a harmonica bled out and her voice opened up on the long syllables, the note struck wide and full, strong without overpowering, she was a real girl wanting an actual, if elusive, boy.

Frustrated by the prep school boys who just seemed dumb, caught up in things that just didn’t  seem important, this “Cowboy Angel” was the accessible answer to the guy Bonnie Raitt was pining for in “Angel To Montgomery.” What I didn’t understand in the moment: Carter’s angel was in close proximity, Raitt’s cowboy had grown mythic – and smaller than a horizon spec -- over time.

It’s all perspective, but you don’t know that when you’re young, on fire and waiting for your destiny to begin. Instead, you sigh into your pillow, listen to your records on eternal repeat and mainline all those emotions you can only access by listening to the words smeared across rock, pop, r&b and even new wave melodies.

 My ultimate genuflection to Valerie Carter came later that summer. On Running on Empty, Jackson Browne’s paean to roadlife – something as a competitive golfer I knew a little more about than the garden variety middle schooler – she co-wrote “Love Needs A Heart.” A secret handshake of a song, it spoke volumes to the states of self-inflicted human bondage that come with always being gone, never being around people you can truly trust and, especially, being shattered by those you do.


Rather than one more rootless rolling stone song, the high messiah of the way long gone countenance, this was a song of reckoning and the price paid – or even extracted – for the life, but also the damage already incurred. That’s what nobody tells you when you’re acting brave, sucking it up, shaking it off, pretending it’s for the best: all of that face saving for one’s dignity comes with a cost.


And you know that it’s Carter who tempers Browne and George. Only a woman would profess,
“Proud and alone, cold as a stone
I’m afraid to believe the things I feel
I can cry with the best, I can laugh with the rest
But I’m never sure when it’s real…”


That’s some powerful vertigo. But also exactly how it happens. You pave over your embarrassment, your hurt, your anger at the disbelief of what just happened -- and you stop trusting what you know, being able to honor those emotions that are right there.


With a piano part any serviceable seventh grader could play, Jackson Browne rues and confesses his personal treason. It’s the tale of leaving when he confesses he’s broken this woman’s heart, and in that first verse, it feels like what a thousand other guilt douching songs sound like.

But then it turns, the stakes add up. Maybe a man could’ve written what comes next, but quite possibly not. As the second verse bottoms out, the revelation dawns.

“Love won’t come near me, she don’t even hear me

She walks by my vacancy sign
Love needs a heart, trusting and blind
I wish that heart was mine…”

By the time Valerie Carter – opening Browne’s tour to good notices and obvious fertile creative winds ( – co-wrote “Love Needs A Heart,” plenty must have happened. The sylph urchin had been banged around a bit by life, or “the life,” and now was counting up her scrapes and bruises, weighing the risks and considering the damage. Not to mention the ultimate truth: once you know, you can’t not know.


And so, Valerie Carter put her heart in a song she didn’t sing. She carried on, like singers do, the music too potent a force to let go.  Once you make your way in or through songs, there rarely is another path to travel.


Wild Child, the next record, bore witness to it. A tight cropped head shot – echoing Diana Ross’ Diana­ – was sleek, slick, technically gorgeous, somehow clinically detached. This gamine was haute everything, Scavullo-esque in her high forehead and higher cheekbones, but her eyes had enough of the dilation, you had to wonder what other highs she might be sailing, what numbing strategies she’d devised.


I remember hearing Wild Child on the stereo at Record Theater, played – as all in-store play was – to entice the customers to lay down their hard-earned dollars. It was shapeless soft rock/jazz lite stuff, perfect for chilled Chablis and Virginia Slims’ uber thin cigarettes crowd. Perfect for the richer Mommies. Technically perfect, more than a little cold, the fire and raw passion that dripped from her notes was gone – much like the disco precision that was rising all around the suburbs, chasing a thrill and a high that was never truly there, even with your nose stuffed with cocaine.


I didn’t buy that record, didn’t hide my disappointment. Didn’t know what to say, or even why it mattered. I doubled down on Stone’s Throw, knowing sometimes one record that holds so much is worth more than a wheelbarrow of careers from the REO Speedwagons, Styxs, Rushs and Deep Purples.


And I got on with living, with trying to figure out why and how. Not just to survive, but what happens next, where shall the road take me when it’s finally time to take me away. Sometimes we make deals with ourselves to make the best of where we are. Sometimes we get vertigo or just lose our way. Sometimes our hearts break in ways we can’t even explain, don’t always know or understand -- and the world doesn’t care – so you soldier on.


Valerie Carter was a brave soldier in the realm of song and reason, romance and how it goes. She’d paid her money, took the ride, shimmered so brightly, she’d still turn up on records like Don Henley’s The End of the Innocence, and remained James Taylor’s favorite female back-up vocalist.

Mostly, though, she disappeared. To Florida. To relative obscurity, occasionally circling back for the music, but mostly, staying out of harm’s way.


When the news hit that she’d passed from this world, Taylor’s socials carried in part this remembrance, “…Valerie was an old soul and as deep as a well. Her voice came from her life and her life was a steep, rocky road. I believe that we can hear it, whenever the music is that crucial, when the song is saving someone’s life….”


Saving someone’s life. Oooh, child. Never mind the latter day scrapes with law enforcement, with courts of law, with Taylor himself paying for your out-of-state in-patient treatment and coming to your drug court graduation. Forget all the disappointments and promises made along the way nobody bothered to fulfill.

We can’t know the things that go unspoken or unseen. We can only hope that free, she is a shaft of light as pretty as those high notes she’d twirl around on, sparkle like the naughty twinkle in her eye. Sometimes freedom isn’t until the next life – and sad as we all are, maybe that’s the truth to hang onto.

Postcards from Bonnaroo: The Second Hit

How It Looks
Imagine cloning the Mudslide Slim & the Blue Horizon album cover. A whole field of skinny boys, with skinny braces, a few skinny ties and skinny pants with earthtone cotton pants hanging off them; scraggly longish hair teasing collars, curling around ears, occasionally sweeping around jawlines and various forms of perfectly ungroomed facial hair to let you know they're beyond puberty...
It would seem so mannered, cuffs casually unbuttoned or turned back beyond the elbows, flaccid fedoras wilting in the bright sun... Like a vintage costume soiree for poseurs looking to throwback to a more populist era of Willa Cather and John Steinbeckian dustbowl charms. But you look at them, and sense they mean it.
Just like the girls with long cotton skirts barely clinging to jutting hip bones, mens vests buttoned up with nothing -- or else a garishly clashing bra -- underneath, thin claves barely filling out the shafts of the cowboy boots they clomp along in.
That's what it looks like backstage. Well, like that and middle-aged people in drab hipster, almost camping gear, standing weight to one hip weighing the merits of this act, that social media platform. Big timing the big time in the land of the hipeousie and impossibly sangfroide doing anything but melting in this straight down, raindown heat.
The sun couldn't be clearer, brighter, more golden. Like Ashley Capps makes son kind of deal with Apollo, or Helois if its Greek to you. Blazing and burning the exposed flesh, like an offering to his mighty rays to keep the rain at bay.

On the Which stage, Trixie Whitley wails. A mountain of moan out of a tiny wisp of songstress/writer, giant shards of emotion flying in some white girl cross between flame-tossing dervish Janis and belting-prime Aretha, with a bit of Teena Marie's bottom register thrown in for deep burgundy measure. The drums crash just as thundrous, thumping and humping to drive her power home. It's a lotta land she's gotta cover, but it pours out in steamy blankets of pain and want. You can't not listen... as people moving from one place to another find themselves stopping, looking round.
She is her father's daughter, though only the intense organic nature of her music reflects the potency of slide guitarist/emotion channeler Chris Whitley's attack. Lean and raw, he distilled ache into the tightest, sinewy bits of vocal and guitar lines that scalded when they were played. Meatier, throater, thumpier, she has his extreme depth of feel, but she wields a broader sort of voice.
Shes the first act -- at high noon -- on the Which stage, to be followed by PASTE Magazine cover boy Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, a band named for the mental ward back home. Of Monsters and Men will follow, Jim James and Wilco, ZZ Top, Rayland Baxter. Every level, every kind of constellation, asteroid and shooting star imagined... Too many more to merely list here, and yet.
All before tonmorrow comes.

How It Smells.

For all the heat, the dust, the drying mud, it's mostly grass in the sun. There's the smell of smoke from the grilles near where there's cooking, good wood being burned to smoke or char or que some kind of flesh; a satisfying smell of sustenance being made.

A little patchouli, some incense being burned out on the sprawling fields. For all the porta-potties, it is not that smell of chemicals dissolving human waste, nor the nearly toxic stink strips hanging in truck stop toilets in the deepest parts of the South, or those cakes in urinals that are never changed enough.
Yes, you can smell the people. But the good smell of sweat on skin, of honest exertion and healthy diets. Not some noxious stench of those who refuse to bathe. It reminds you how powerful our own musk is, the way pheromones speak so much louder than anything we can say.
It is, of course, the first full day. But compared to the rank smells of crass commercialism that is CMA Fan Fest, carny food and wilting rayon outfits, cheap beer being poured and released back into nature, this is a whole other mass of flesh churning under the heat. Fascinating juxtaposition; that or an over/under of priorities meaning it's "about the experience" or charging $40 to park close-by...

Close Your Eyes

"The sun is slowly sinking down… "The moon is rising… "This ole world keeps on turnin' 'round… "And I still love you…" It's a quiet profession. A bit tired, worn but knowing. It's the kind of truth one arrives at by finding out what isn't as much as what it is -- and if it's not shiny and happy and beaming, there's a comfort in that deeper no other options knowledge. Introduced by James Taylor with the simple declaration, "This is a lullaby," "You Can Close Your Eyes" was an accepting benediction of that which hurts. It acknowledges the pain that litters lives and it soothes with gentleness that all harrowed beings deserve. On this evening -- to a sold-out crowd at New York City's Madison Square Garden -- it was also gently rocking the loss of a dear friend to a quiet place. Because, quite simply, people die… sometimes suddenly… sometimes out of time… sometimes not when they're supposed to; though who's to say? This was a night to lull the ache that came from the passing of Tim White, one of the last of the true believers in the world of music journalism. White, a man who was fiercely independent in his thinking, married to the notion of good music and committed to getting it heard in any way he knew how, was the kind of life force one can never imagine extinguished. Yet here we were -- along with Brian Wilson, Roger Waters, Jimmy Buffett, Sheryl Crow, Don Henley, Sting and Taylor -- celebrating the unthinkable in today's world: someone who believed music mattered. And in a taped 10 minute tribute/overview of the beaming journalist's life, White himself told the deepest truth, "A hero is someone who faces insurmountable odds -- and fights anyways." In a world where not making waves is the rule, just letting good enough be more than enough and fine is the cancer that's undermined quality and originality in the name of market share and ease of operation (not to mention maximizing profit margins in a business that still corners on excess mandated by ego), Tim White stood down. The artists appreciated that -- and, hopefully, the attendees were inspired by it. Tim White, you see, was both Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. On his own mule, he tilted at the windmills of the music he loved -- regardless of consequences, calling foul where it felt the business was being egregious; aside the Mellencamps, the Marley’s and the Taylor’s, he offered solace, insight, inspiration for staying on the horse. The bow-tied writer with the broad smile and willingness to champion was always passionate about something -- and not afraid to take on the bogus or the undeserving or especially the unfair. And when he suddenly died, it put everything in a pretty harsh light. Because if someone who was all crackling life force could just -- poof! -- be gone, with all that joy, all that appreciation, all that exhilaration, it could happen to any of us. It was a reminder and a caution and a loss... A loss that haunts you in ways you don't even wholly understand. But it's a life to remind us to risk the fury of chasing a dream or the things we love fiercely. In the end, what else is there really? Which begs the dilemma of this incredible night of music and kinship: write an essay about the power of music designed, like Hans Christian Anderson's little match girl's flame, to be held aloft to stay warm and fight back the fear of being alone, or to talk about James Taylor's ability to heal? Because both are valid -- if very different points. Certainly the musicians knew what they lost. Not just in terms of the voice, but the forum. But they performed because they believed in the passion rather than merely stumping for what was, some last hurrah validation grab. And if the fans came solely on marquis drawing power, hopefully they went into the night a little more on fire -- and perhaps ready to make a decision based on what might be rather than what just is. Having lost a lot of friends out of time, the notion of having one's soul torn… that shock of gone when it shouldn't even close to be… the numbing of the incomprehensible… it passes a bit, but never really fades. And that's where the ghosts of what's gone become poltergeists who can mock you if you're not careful. Which is what made James Taylor's "You Can Close Your Eyes" so potent. A lullaby for an ideal gone, a man who shone so others might bask in the light, a faithful believer with a critical eye pushing and encouraging people to be more, better had passed. And in Taylor's elegiac musing of hushed acceptance, there was something to put those challenges to sleep. "Close your eyes, you can close your eyes it's alright," he assured everyone, most of all himself and fellow performers. "I don't know no love songs, but I can't sing the blues anymore…" There it was. So simple. So sweet. So declarative. In this emptiness, there is no spark, but also there are no more tears. The sadness remains; it's what we do with it that matters. In James Taylor's throat -- that voice that's been down quilts, homemade cookies, the first fire of the year and thick corduroys worn with favorite flannel shirts -- it's about the rhythms of sadness that should take us. It's also about comfort sown where confusion, maybe even a little anger, reigns. What is gone is profound, what remains is all there is. Exhaustion permeates, disorientation defines. And in all that… all that… we must find a soft place to fall, to wrap ourselves in that which made the difference and temper the amputation of what is gone with the joy that we experienced it at all. My best friend died of asthmatic arrest 10 years ago. She was 26, and she was gone in less than 5 minutes. There was no more vibrant, more music loving, life-choking human being than Emily, known to those who knew us as Piglet. A trust fund baby, who drove a BMW and was always short of her monthly draw, she knew no fear even when the bank was dry -- and she chased life with that same zeal. I have a close friend now that 'let and I shared. Closer because we both knew her. Closer because I was the one that got the call in response to the tear-stained message from a Brian Wilson recording session (ironically enough) to hear the news, to draw the breath, to blink the jarring understanding of what had happened. We both were bound by that loss. Even as we share the smiles of having known the sparkling Emily Woods. And anyone who ever met Emily through me still talks about her as if she were here. When I have a bad day, it's late so the time zone doesn't work for me, there's no Emily to call, to tell her how mean people are, how petty and venal, how personal agenda undermines the artist's good. To rail against the inertia of it all, I guess, and to hear, "But Holly Geeeeee, that's why you're there…" and then that giggle. Emily knew that some people were born to fight, to thrive, to struggle. She, like Tim White, like me I hope, was a true believer. And the thing about true believers -- again I can only hope -- is that they burn on long after the candle is gone. And if we never ever truly get over those who pass away, it's comforting to know, they never really do. They live on in our hearts, our lives becoming a testimony to what we witnessed amongst the special ones -- and our smiles, our dreams, our tears become the quiet manifestation to the emotion we brought to the plate. Tired, perhaps… Mired in futility, naturally… but euphoric about the possibilities, without a doubt. Even in the darkest hours, lives that have been touched will remain shining witness to that which they saw. And that is the knowledge that offers the deepest solace. That, and the voice of an old friend, who takes the shock off and offers a basic truth. If it's not perfect, not what you want it to be, it's still probably better than it appears - and that is the truth that will lift you up, that will set you on fire again. "Close your eyes, you can close your eyes It's alright I don't know no love songs But I can't sing the blues any more And you can sing this sing… Oh, you can sing this song… When I'm gone." Holly Gleason New York City Nashville 8 October,
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