Bill Jackson may be a product of Down Under, but he is a son of Texas and Virginia and Tennessee and many more of the states which have given Americans their musical roots, or am I the typical Ugly American who sees everything through egocentric glasses? Are our roots our roots? I'm not so sure anymore after hearing Steel + Bone, Jackson's award-winning 2008 album. Until recently, my musical attitude toward Australia and New Zealand, rock music aside, was pretty much capsulized by Rolf Harris and "Waltzing Matilda" and their like—songs so truly Down Under there was no mistake. Of course, there have been a few musicians who have broken through the veil, most notably Shane Nicholson and Kasey Chambers, who knocked my socks of with 2008's excellent Rattlin' Bones LP (here). Well, here we go again.
Bill Jackson is not your typical Aussie folkie. He could be from Austin or Charlottesville or Nashville. He writes songs which transcend place and time and while folk in basis, step beyond. That is partially due to partner in crime Peter Fidler, who ranks right up there with Pat Wictor and Randy Kohrs and a handful of others on my best-of list for resonator guitar and dobro. Jackson and Fidler have this symbiotic relationship not unlike that of Kevin Welch and Fats Kaplin, each providing the other with the wherewithal to make good music better. Jackson and Welch construct a building. Fidler and Kaplin lay down finishing touches.
The buildings here are a step or two above the norm, my favorite being the backwoodsy and swamp-flavored Long Way From Water which rivals anything ever superimposed over opening credits of a good independent film of eerie character. There is something in the way the percussion drags the lightly tremeloed guitar alongside the simple but effective dobro which makes you believe. Two measures in, you know this is a good one.
Red Sandy Bed, the only song on the album not written at least in part by Jackson (credit it to one Peter Cole), upbeat as it is, reeks of outback Down Under and high plains desert in the States. The banjo is placed so far in the background you hardly notice while giving the song that undeniable country edge. Jackson co-wrote John Lee Hooker with Cole, a tribute song which lays somewhere between lazy folk and bluesy dirge, the acoustic rhythm carrying the tune down a long slow river. You Evil Bitch Morphine is just what you would expect, music and lyrics humanizing the dehumanizing drug. Jackson takes So Long decades into the past, putting a slight fifties and sixties edge on an otherwise current song. And Tex steps into alt.country territory, Fidler hoisting the slide higher and further than anything on the album. It is a tale of gunslinging come to no good end making me think that maybe this is where Jackson separates Australia from the States. Down there, Tex is sent to the Big House. In the States, we'd have hung him.
This album puts Bill Jackson right up there next to many other outstanding songwriters I have discovered the past few years—A. J. Roach and Brandon Rickman and Kevin Welch and so many others—who rely mostly on song and not just genre and are a notch above. If someone had played this for me blind and asked me where it came from, Australia would have been far from my mind. I think that's cool.
Most of what I know about Australia has come from movies and a few words from my father ("If I had to fight in another war, I would want the Aussies on my side"). Bill Jackson makes me think the geologists may have it all wrong. Maybe Australia was once a part of the United States and through a quirk of fate, ended up Down Under. That will be my working theory until I feel like listening to something different. From now on, I'm just a Northern Australian, a few islands and continents removed.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2010, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.
Website design by David N. Pyles