“SONG FOR EWE” is the feature where artists & music people beloved by VELVET SHEEP choose an obscure song they’ve been listening to that day. Today in a seasonal flip to the format it’s a “SONG FOR BOO” just in time for Halloween (see what I did there, punnery may be the lowest form of wit, but hey, you can’t change who you are!) And here to cast scary aspersions over the proceedings it’s a regular fav of this parish, David Lance Callahan of The Wolfhounds (and Moonshake of course).
Not only is David one of the finest English songwriters for a generation and one of the most enduring of the C86 era for sure, he’s also a brilliant writer not only about music but also his beloved birds, a couple of which malevolent crows stalk his debut solo record – the brilliantly troubling and gravely deep “English Primitive I” (in true “Use Your Illusions” style there will be a second albeit not simultaneously released). It’s out on one of Velvet Sheep’s absolute fav labels Tiny Global Productions today, Friday 29 October and the fact that it’s come so close to Halloween seems no mistake given the concoction of very English Gothic tales and acid folk contained therein.
Last time David was here his “song for ewe” pick of David Van Ronk ended up inspiring a whole podcast in the US around the song “Pastures of Plenty”, so I knew I’d get some more killer copy from an absolute sonic scholar, and I wasn’t disappointed. Get ready for some shlock and awe as we welcome back to these pages David Lance Callahan!
Can you guess what his song pick is yet? David’s got a book to help…
The album “English Primitive I” kicks off with a strident anthem for the proletariat, complete with Humpty Dumpty musical refrain, “Born Of The Welfare State Was I”, plus pipes, imageries of rock & roll nurses and an insistence and instance that all the best folk anthems have in their rich tapestry.
I wondered on a recent Velvet Sheep radio show if perhaps “English Primitive I” was I as in the first person rather than the Roman numeral I. Oh how I laughed, you really must tune into a future episode for more frivolity – especially as on the next Halloween special episode on Sat 30 Oct I’ll be playing Dave’s song “Goatman”, the second song on the album and a real highlight along with his “song for ewe” pick coming up.
“Goatman” is finger picking great, like Richard & Linda Thompson’s finest and it’s complete with a foreboding and mythical tale, part Hammer Horror, part Hans Christian Anderson. One to be frightened of when told around the fire, shadow-playing for laughs and scares, and the perfect accompaniment to the song pick below as will soon reveal itself…
And from the frankly fearsome pysch folk-you of “Goatman” to the dhol drums and raga-ish chants of the more dimunitive but no less mythical “Foxboy”, whose Eastern promise offers a strong and welcome recall to “Song of the Afghan Shopkeeper” from last year’s awesome Wolfhounds record “Electric Music”.
The album’s cover art of a stained glass window with modern high-kicking herberts as well as a fallen angel and fire and brimstone are apt for an album that offers modern themes of Stool Britannia and combines them with the otherwordliness of a misremembered, pious past we never had. It’s a times frankly terrifying, and yet timelessly familiar. Where once we dodged the emptying of a Chaucerian latrine from a window overhead – not so much stained glass as stained streets below, now we face open water swimming against a estuarine torrent of Richard III’s by which I mean the rhyming slang rather than the car park foundation dwelling skeleton king.
“She’s The King Of My Life” is an axiomatically regal romantic spot of relief after the darkness of the old Albion netherworlds of Goatmen and Foxboys and it’s Callahan at his discordantly hooky and melodic best. But as soon as the unnamed female figure has beguiled our hero, “She Passes Through The Night” and it’s a psychedelic guitar breadcrumb trail reminiscent of Lee Ranaldo’s latter-day material, a spiralling searchlight epic both in duration and scope.
“One Rainy September” is a brilliant discourse between a returned soldier and a resentful daughter, and it’s an expansive outpouring with a multi-faceted production of strange duck quack-like squeezebox effects and stirring strings from The Iskra Strings: John Smart, Emma Owens, Verity Simmons and James Underwood. The album also contains the undeniably rousing contributions of Katherine Mountain Whitaker, Alison Cotton and a couple of known accomplices of this website Terry Edwards and Daren Garratt, and it ends with a gentle, chiming resolution, a reverb-drenched run into the blood red sunset called “Always”.
Anyway enough of my cod song by song analysis, it’s over to the well-read and well-appointed man himself. Without further ado, here’s David Callahan’s new “song for ewe” and inaugural “song for boo”…
“As Halloween looms, genuine fright is hard to come by among the green rubber witch masks and open-mouthed and -eyed Scary Movie masks. In truth, no one fears ghosts and witches much anymore, now we know such things don’t really exist – at least in the forms they usually take in stories and movies.
However, among our atheist certainties, the atavistic fear of losing control under the influence of matters spiritual or supernatural still lurks, somewhere in the black thrashing of panic or the depths of stage-R sleep. The shivers down the spine can still be initiated without warning by a tale of sudden spiritual overload, a life-changing, perspective-altering event arriving without warning. A dramatic, potentially fatal, incident beyond any of our control, apparently with a purpose.
That’s why I’ve chosen a country and western song as my Halloween choice for this website’s ‘Song for Ewe’ section. Or, more precisely, a western song, as ‘The Master’s Call’ comes from Marty Robbins’ seminal collection of folk ballads, covers and original works, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs.
Robbins was gifted with a voice comparable to Charlie Rich in its depth and warmth – like Rich, similar to Elvis Presley but with a little more technical skill and subtlety. He turned his hand to schmaltzy ballads, lightweight rockabilly and even had a hand in inventing fuzz guitar with his 1961 hit, ‘Don’t Worry’ (itself a milder cousin of Elvis’s ‘Trying to Get to You’). But his reputation mostly survives for Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, his first of several collections of cowboy and gunfighter songs.
This was a popular LP after its 1959 release, making the Top Ten in the US and UK, riding the wave of classic western movies that Hollywood had been constantly releasing since the end of World War II. Typical of its time, it was recorded and mixed in one day, and was his fifth studio LP; it had sold enough copies by the mid-1980s to be certified Platinum. The single off the album, ‘El Paso’, also became a worldwide hit, and the record is still a cultural fixture after the opening track, ‘Big Iron’, became an internet meme via TicToc. It is a permanent fixture in the curated 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die list.
It also had a presence in my dad’s small record collection, a handful of LPs that had a default influence on my own songs and musical tastes. The two I went back to the most – and still do – were Kris Kristofferson’s Me and Bobby McGhee and Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. The Wolfhounds’ song ‘6,000 Acres’ is, lyrically, an indirect lift from Marty Robbins’ ‘A Hundred and Sixty Acres’, while the numerous songs I’ve written over the years attempting to eviscerate traditional ideas of manhood ultimately originate in Marty Robbins’ steadfast and unquestioningly moral male leads. These certainly influenced British male attitudes as part of the wild-west tropes prevalent in western culture well into the 1970s.
There is a cold and knowing morality in all the songs on Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs: you don’t murder without a fatal comeuppance, you don’t cheat without being murdered, and your only salvation is to save others from being killed by sacrificing your own life … and being killed. Your only chance of avoiding an early death is the hand of God intervening to give you a second chance. This exoneration happens with dramatic and spine-chilling effect to the protagonist of ‘The Master’s Call’, the trail-song centrepiece of side two of Gunfighter Ballads. Despite the superficial ridiculousness of the tale told, the conviction and intensity of its delivery draw you into a world where a miraculous event can force your life to reverse its direction with its awe-inspiring power. All in the space of three minutes and five seconds.
Robbins’ character is a young man, “wild and full of fire”, who breaks his parents’ hearts by running away to lead a life of predatory crime with a band of outlaws while still a teenager. The turning point in this life of robbing and plundering happens when the gang rustles a herd of a thousand cattle, intending to drive them to Mexico to sell. God has finally had enough and expresses his disapproval by creating a fearsome storm, which causes the cattle to stampede. By now, you can almost hear and feel those mortal hooves thundering across the prairie.
Now things start to get mysterious and frightening. Gothically so. Lightning splits a tree into the shape of a cross. The Cross. God’s voice surrounds the young man in the maelstrom. He cowers. His horse throws him to the ground. More lightning illuminates the face of Christ in the sky. He cowers, even more, regretting his so-recent evil past to the depths of his soul.
But God is kind in the face of repentance. He kills a hundred head of cattle simultaneously with a mighty bolt of lightning. The corpses pile up, forming a wall that prevents our anti-hero from getting trampled to death – a genuinely grotesque image. The saviour has called his name and forgiven him. Result!
I’ve described ‘The Master’s Call’ in the slightly irreverent, post-modern manner, but the power and sensitivity of Marty Robbins’ warm, resonant, sepia-toned larynx – a grated fire to come home to – the mariachi-inflected, acoustic guitars of Grady Martin and Jack Pruett, and the rich, Jordanaires-like, wordless backing harmonies by Tompall and the Glaser Brothers, make me the fool. The fear and regret expressed by our anti-hero as he is awed by the will of a God made palpable and immense with a purpose both guiding and threatening, and all for his personal salvation, are impossible to mock with conviction. We are left to gaze at this eerie, primal scene, questioning our transgressions, our lives’ meaningless digressions, and hope that we achieve personal redemption – even though it may also take an inexplicable and disproportionate event to do this.
As I said: shivers down the spine.”
MANY THANKS DAVID, YOU ARE ALWAYS WELCOME ON VELVET SHEEP!
Please do buy yourself a copy of the excellent “English Primitive I” on the Bandcamp link below…(out today!)