In 1970, when Simon & Garfunkel released “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” 14-year-old Shawn Colvin was among the millions who bought the album, which would go on to become one of the biggest sellers of the decade.
“When the record came out, I learned every song on it,” recalls Colvin, now 51.
A couple of weeks ago, the Grammy-winning folk-pop singer-songwriter got a phone call asking her to perform one of those songs, “The Boxer,” with bluegrass star Alison Krauss at a concert to pay tribute to the man who wrote it, Paul Simon, recipient of the first Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.
So on May 23 in Washington, D.C., Colvin joined Krauss on the Warner Theatre stage for a folksy rendition of “The Boxer,” which Rolling Stone once ranked No. 105 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Lyle Lovett, Stephen Marley, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Dianne Reeves and Stevie Wonder also performed at the event (which will air on PBS on June 27). But it was Colvin and Krauss who were chosen to open the concert.
“It was a big compliment, and a big charge, to open a show like that,” says Colvin the day after, en route to the airport, where she would board a flight home to Austin, Texas, and her 8-year-old daughter, Caledonia, whom she is raising as a single parent. “To be playing under the announcing credits, with a band doing an instrumental version of `Boy in the Bubble,’ was very powerful.”
But while she admits she enjoys playing with other musicians, Colvin stresses she is “very comfortable” going it alone. “And,” she adds, “I think I’m good at it.”
It would be hard to disagree. Since the 1980s, when she gained national attention as part of New York’s so-called “new folk movement,” the Vermillion, S.D., native, has created a body of work that includes trademark tunes such as “Sunny Came Home,” “I Don’t Know Why,” “Shotgun Down The Avalanche” and “Whole New You.” Her latest disc, “These Four Walls,” was released eight months ago.
Though she has been recording for 20-plus years, Colvin manages a few surprises on the new disc. One is actually quite shocking: The usually gentle, demure songstress drops the f-bomb for the first time in song on one of “Four Walls’” best tunes, “The Bird,” about breaking free of guilt.
When told it’s hard to imagine her using the f-word, Colvin says with a laugh, “You don’t know me!”
Colvin calls “The Bird” the disc’s “foundation” song because it was the first tune she completed for “These Four Walls.”
“It would never be my intention to put a swear word in just for the sake of using a swear word, but it’s perfect in that song,” she adds. “I decided to speak very bluntly. I’m not holding back. Besides, to pine for someone and feel like it was your fault it did not work out is not fun.”
If “The Bird” is “Four Walls’” foundation, the title track is its cornerstone, says Colvin.
“I was drawn to this piece of music by (producer and longtime collaborator) John Leventhal immediately. ... I took my time with it (lyrically). I didn’t want to force it. I was at my sister’s home in Austin one night and it came to me, that it’s about domesticity. I just had the line, `I’m gonna die in these four walls.’ But not in a bad way. It’s just a commitment to stay settled.”
On the seductive, lilting “Summer Dress,” about a person ready to spread her wings and confront her fears so she can live, not merely survive, Colvin sings about facing “the men in hats, the boys on bikes, the perfect girls, the baby dykes.”
The latter phrase was suggested by a gay friend, says Colvin. “I was kind of woodshedding a lot of these songs at a place in Florida, and two lesbian friends had gone along with me,” she explains. “I would write during the day and have dinner and then fish off the dock. In the morning I would go to their hut and play what I had done. I had the `boys on bikes’ line and couldn’t come up with what to do next, and Annie said, `baby dykes.’ It’s a slang term for newbie lesbians. It’s kind of an inside thing. I have a gay following, and I knew they would like it.”
The conversation comes to an end as Colvin announces she is at the airport gate ready to board her flight. No time to ask if she caught the 400th episode of “The Simpsons” (she supplied the singing for the character of Rachel Jordan, the Christian singer who dates Ned Flanders); or her wonderful cover of the Bee Gees’ “Words” that ends “These Four Walls,” or about life as a single parent.
But she has time for one quick final question:
At the end of 2005 she let it be known that her 2006 New Year’s resolution would be to quit smoking, which she had previously done for four years, twice.
“Yes, I did stop,” she says. “I’m still not smoking.”
// Notes from the Road
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