On his latest effort, Cimarron Manifesto, singer/songwriter Jimmy LaFave pays his respects to the Oklahoma roots of his hero, Woody Guthrie, and his own years in the territory. LaFave, himself a native Texan, was born in Wills Point and lived there until his family moved to Stillwater, Oklahoma during his school years. Quite a fixture on the Austin music scene, upon his return to Texas in 1986, LaFave racked up critical accolades among not only Austin-based publications, but periodicals across the country and two Austin Music Awards, in addition to other laurels. LaFave’s visibility on the musical radar increased with an appearance on Austin City Limits and at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute to Woody Guthrie, where he was hand-picked by Guthrie’s daughter to appear.
Surprisingly enough, LaFave’s geographical experiences ping-ponging between the two states influenced his music just as much as copious amounts of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan tunes did during his formative years. Hell, he even combined the two states on the title of his 2001 album, Texoma. And LaFave manages to tie together his love and admiration for his two spiritual hometowns and his folk heroes on his latest album. A cavalcade of Austin-based musicians crop up on Cimarron Manifesto, as does a Bob Dylan cover.
LaFave’s sound is much more Red Dirt than Red State, although geographically speaking, it would be easy to assume that, if the media were to be unquestionably believed, it reflects a “Hey! Everything’s alright!” musical mentality. On Cimarron Manifesto, LaFave recognizes that everything is not alright. Picking up the protest song mantle, he delivers the oh-so-Guthrie, “This Land”, combining a folk-based, traveling road song with a subdued sadness and depression regarding the state of the country. Tackling the subjects of poverty and war, the song invokes images of a Steinbeckian dust bowl in a contemporary setting: “I see people / Just stranded by the road / They’re hopeless and forgotten / While the milk and honey flows.”
Guest artist (and fellow Austin-ite) Carrie Rodriguez contributes both backing vocals and a mournful violin to “This Land”, and to the relatively cheerful and rollicking “Hideaway Girl”. The latter track is punctuated by rich, spirited fiddling that features LaFave in a rare, happy moment on the disc, sounding like a young man ready to carve his and his lady friend’s initials into a tree.
There is a certain dichotomy to the album with many of the tracks riding the fence between the hopeful and the hopeless. Many of LaFave’s pieces come off as rather dirge-like. While a keen focus on blue collar ethics is ever-present in his work on Cimarron Manifesto, much of the material lacks the rousing, anthemic power and working-man bombast of Springsteen. When contemplating the fate of a nation and a lost way of life, perhaps the somberness is appropriate. Even when he’s not dipping his toe into Protest Song Land, LaFave crafts songs of a more universal, yet still utterly downtrodden nature.
Even the songs that are lyrical expressions of joy are slowed down to a mind-numbingly depressing pace. “Lucky Man” is a bogged down, honky-tonk bar slow dance on which LaFave’s voice sounds tear-soaked while expounding on the nature of his perfect sweetheart whom he is so lucky to be with.
Taking it a step further, “Home Once Again” is less of a love song than it is a requiem that once again shows off LaFave’s vocal potential. While not exactly a multi-octave dynamo, his voice is extremely expressive and aptly lays down the heavy emotional content of his songs. And make no mistake, “Home Once Again” is a highly emotional track that speaks of the loss of a loved one. The song’s lyrics render a simple poetry; LaFave refrains from being overly flowery and is still abstract and poignant enough to make his impact upon the listener about the sadness, resignation, and recognition that there is no real need to let go because of death, so long as the spirit survives.
The maudlin continues as LaFave proffers several covers on Cimarron Manifesto. His rendition of Donovan’s “Catch the Wind” is as morose as they come. Mind you, Donovan’s version wasn’t the happiest song ever committed to a recorded medium, however, LaFave’s rendition sucks even the last remaining granule of joy from the tune. So much so that it would be a good idea to hide the bottles of Wild Turkey and copies of LaFave’s cover from the kid who doesn’t get asked to the prom. While “Catch the Wind” is devoid of any speckle of optimism, the two other reworkings are considerably more upbeat. “Walk a Mile In My Shoes” amps up the country/blues/rock trifecta with less of an emphasis on a straight-ahead gospel feel present on Joe South’s original, and features a refreshing, female vocal by another fellow Austin alumnus, Ruthie Foster, turning the song into something of a duet.
LaFave hits his stride on the poppy cover of Bob Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet”. A standout track, the piece showcases how good LaFave’s voice can be, even though there are times throughout where it’s apparent that he’s trying to pull off his best impersonation of Bob Dylan, nicking certain phrasing mannerisms from Mr. Zimmerman himself. Nevertheless, that shouldn’t take away from LaFave’s soaring vocal quality that straddles the expressive, stylistic line between Rod Stewart and Jon Waite.
Despite the decidely dark mood that Cimarron Manifesto evokes, there are several joyful moments sprinkled throughout the disc. With a thumping riff reminiscent of Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care of Business”, “That’s the Way It Goes.” Stands as a Where Are They Now homage to rock n’ roll and rockabilly. A fractured ‘50s fairy tale featuring Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue”, Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally”, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”, among others, tells of when real life comes calling for the fictional good-time girls and boys, and they have to pay their bills.
On the bluesy, up-tempo “Don’t Ask Me”, LaFave channels B.B. King’s style without the distinctive touch of Lucille, instead adding his own unique guitar flair with the skipping blues riffs peppered by Hammond organ.
While most musical themes and concepts are pretty universal (boy meets girl, boy breaks up with girl, anger at parents and/or government), it’s becoming harder to find a touch of unique, local color in songs indicative of an area’s terrain … or more importantly, its mindset. Sure, the Sunset Strip and various and sunny California locales continue to be immortalized in song, as has the gritty glamour of New York City in rock music. Hip-hop fails to show much of a difference in how things are done on the East Coast, West Coast, or the Dirty South. Country has become more gentrified, and thusly more mainstream and nationwide, bringing the Americana ideal to both pastoral and metropolitan areas above the Mason-Dixon Line. And thanks to the internet, faster means of transportation, and the Walmartization of the nation, combined with the ever-shrinking world becoming more of a global village united under the banner of cultural imperialism, it’s harder to fathom music inspired by simple, regional landscapes.
Regardless of how chipper or gloomy the music and subject matter of Cimarron Manifesto comes across, LaFave accomplishes what he sets out to do, serving up a slice-of-life as lived in his beloved corner of the country.
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// Notes from the Road
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