In the summer of 1992, T-Bone Burnett released a quiet, thoughtful yet provocative album called Criminal Under My Own Hat that featured acoustic guitar with occasional dobro, bowed bass and violin accompaniment. It was an introspective little gem of a CD, quirky and strong, garnering high critical praise and engendering a small group of devoted listeners. I liked it a lot, though I knew its country/folk flavorings, often witty lyrics and quiet arrangements weren’t likely to be everyone’s cup of tea. After a year or so, it got filed away, both physically and in my memory.
Now, nearly ten years later, the quiet surprise of Gary Myrick and his Waltz of the Scarecrow King has graced my player and jarred those earlier memories out of their slumbers. At last, I’ve found a CD that is, if not a successor to Burnett’s earlier effort, at least a kindred musical spirit. Former roots-rocker, accomplished studio and road musician (Jackson Browne, John Waite, Brian Wilson) Myrick takes the same tasteful acoustic approach here to create a very mature collection of poetic folk songs that simmer slowly, with strong latent emotions lurking just beneath the boiling point of their storytelling.
Looking for the connection between the two CDs didn’t take much searching: Tchad Blake, who engineered and mixed the Burnett classic, has produced this new one for Myrick. Of course, there’s also more than an influential nod here to the straightforward storytelling and spare delivery of Tom Waits, who often works with…yep, that’s right…once again, Tchad Blake.
When Waltz of the Scarecrow King offers up its intimate reflections with Myrick’s Dallas edge, one can’t but help casting him as cowboy poet. Of course, this is the latest in a long musical evolution for Myrick. His extensive musical career has incorporated a host of musical styles, from glam/pop rock to rockabilly to straight rock and roll. He once found himself in the daunting position of replacing Stevie Ray Vaughn in a band called Kracker Jack, and he earned minor success with the hit single “She Talks in Stereo” back in the early ‘90s with his group Gary Myrick and The Figures.
More recently, Myrick ambitiously fused the sounds of El Paso, Latin America and English punk with his band Havana 3 AM, which served as a catalyst to send him off in yet another musical direction. Myrick then started composing for films and commercials, with a return to an organic sound, more reflective of his Texan roots. Continuing in this vein, the new CD is the culmination of a year of songwriting, followed by playing small clubs to test out the material.
Don’t be sorry you missed these small club tryouts, because that’s exactly the feeling captured in this quirky CD—a familiar intimate folk concert played live for your enjoyment. In the spacious acoustic confines of a 100-year-old Southern style house in the Hollywood Hills, Myrick recorded each song in its entirety with no “punch-ins”. The results are superb. Myrick’s vocals and guitar seem live—each hesitation and rhythm inviting your closer attention, as if he is right there, a few feet away, performing for you and your friends.
And what a show it is—sweet to the ear and as deceptively simple as some early Neil Young songs—tunes that sound like country folk standards from some universal forever, wrought with reflective phrasings, straightforward vocals, and perfect points of musical emphasis highlighted by subtle bass, viola and violin. This is personal confession mixed with amusement and fear, wise observations surrounded by spartan picking and strumming on instruments with their own sense of history—an 1894 Washburn Parlor acoustic guitar and a ‘70s square-neck dobro.
The album is aptly subtitled: “Texas Guitar Fables and String Quartet”. The title tune “Scarecrow King” is a lovely lament that captures the quiet desperation of the lonely dreamer/good Samaritan: “Dreams fly high in this dusty sky / and nobody speaks to the king / no, not a duke or a prince or a queen / he’s the king of the scarecrows”. “Hometown Waltz” is another quiet gem of deceptive simplicity, perfectly capturing the way places change as time and people move on, replete with a flamenco guitar bridge: “It seems the world got colder, the clouds have moved away / Such a long short story / I have no place to lay my sleepy head down / there’s no more friends left in my hometown”.
Myrick’s lyrics are whimsy, fact and story with sadness always near the surface: “I danced on the edge of the moon / fell through oceans of tears /memories of time lost far into the years / People they all move on / We walk this world alone / Dance with me for a time for then I will be gone”.
In “Fame is Dangerous” he warns us, citing Lennon and Elvis and the Kennedys to make his somber point: “Fame is dangerous / I saw my best friend die in a fight with himself / the hurt of holding on to the lie is too much / fame is dangerous”. In “Gary’s Lament” he muses about the odd goings-on around him in coffeehouse/bar/restaurant and answers an internal monologue in the chorus: “What do they expect? / A love song / I don’t write them but I will tonight”.
Myrick also serves as wry observer on several songs here, looking at a modern South rife with religion, betrayal and lonely isolation. His “Honk If You Love Jesus” is like some early morning’s odd dream: “I came into town at the break of dawn / vampire housewives blowin’ their horns / if ya love Jesus/ Honk if you love Jesus . . . take my life, take my RV, the propane’s almost gone / and Honk if You Love Jesus is the name of this song”. In “The Ghost of Elvis” we get a smiling Myrick singing about “the ghost of Elvis is flying above us, throwing rose petals and little cheeseburgers”.
The eleven fables offer a pleasant mix of tempos with modest pretty arrangements, and enough cryptic lyrics to keep you coming back for additional listens. It includes two instrumentals: “Haunting of White Rock Lake”, a variant on Ry Cooder that so effectively conveys hot noonday Texas sun I could have sworn I saw tumbleweed rolling across the carpet of my living room, and “Saints of the Mojave”, which double-tracks voice with guitar and calls to mind Cooder again, as well as some parts Adrian Legg or John Renbourn.
Myrick is a writer at the height of his musical prowess and Tchad Blake and Michelle White have captured it nearly live for you. Though this quiet quirky story telling may only earn a small following among fans of folk artists and Tom Waits, it enchanted me unexpectedly when I gave it a chance. Listen to it often and you’ll be singing along. With Waltz of the Scarecrow King, Myrick can transform listeners into a herd of devoted cowboy poets; it’s that easy to get lost in the spare beauty of these songs.