words by maria sledmere
There’s a special kind of intimacy that quietly blooms in the space between two people covering mutually loved songs. Not to mention the alchemic magic of a male/female duet. When it comes to country music, I can’t help but associate it with the road, as though in those interwoven tones new miles of highway were stretching out long and languid til sunset. A good duet feels like a journey; I always think of Conor Oberst and Emmylou Harris on ‘We Are Nowhere and It’s Now’, singing: “and like a ten-minute dream in the passenger’s seat while the world was flying by / I haven’t been gone very long but it feels like a lifetime”—Harris’ ethereal cadence lifting Oberst’s plaintive croon to rapture restrained. It’s as though sharing a song weaves a certain duration, a cocooning time that provides temporary comfort and shelter from the world.
What a pleasure, then, to hear Kevin Morby and Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield covering two tracks by Jason Molina, a musician whose sprawling back catalogue would suffice to soundtrack many a journey across America. Morby’s warm, reedy voice paired with Crutchfield’s airy Alabama twang brings a new lease of life to the grittier originals. Molina’s versions are loose and bluesy, achy songs that gesture earnestly to the exit light of a dingy club the way Gatsby looked across the bay to Daisy’s green light, or Tim Buckley called across the sea to his siren. There’s the unflinching philosophy of world-weary lyrics (“Human hearts and pain should never be separate”), which invite honest admissions of failure and weakness. Morby and Crutchfield’s tighter arrangements, sharper guitars and smoother vocals add a mournful, reflective drawl to the song—a generational longing for its lyricist’s original vision. Youth’s tribute to a man himself taken too young.
Listening to those resonant opening notes on ‘Farewell Transmission’, picked up by Morby’s spare and alluring voice: “The whole place is dark / Every light on this side of the town”, I’m struck by how easy solipsism unfolds into scenery. What each of these musicians share is a natural talent for setting a vision or view, as though every line were another track of cats’ eyes on the road, drawing us closer to some new landscape abstracted again into a riff or the corkscrew twist of a bittersweet lyric: “The real truth about it is my kind of life’s no better off / If I’ve got the maps or if I’m lost.” These are songs about accepting the endless terrain of one’s pain, the “long dark blues” of our earthly wandering.
With Morby and Crutchfield’s version, the measured delivery allows you to concentrate on lyrics previously warped in Molina’s mysteriously commanding, faltering howl. You slow down, sink into the song, as Morby and Crutchfield implore: “listen”. It’s a curious, haunted tune, a seven-minute submersion into starlight and desolate highways of “static and distance”. Its self-referential quality of singing about itself, the proclaimed farewell transmission, only adds to that sense of lonely passage, a collapse back into the infinite wilderness of the solitary mind. But what Morby and Crutchfield bring to the nocturnal wanderings and sojourns of these songs is a sense of pleasure in sadness shared, a gesture of respect towards Molina’s quiet genius.
It’s a pleasure, really, to dwell in the shadowy romance, the recesses of time—to just listen.
Buy the two tracks here, via Dead Oceans; all proceeds go to MusiCares,
which provides support and community services to musicians in need of medical, personal & financial assistance