Here we are all in one place, the wants and wounds of the/ human race
Despair and hope sit face to face when you come in from the cold.
Carrie Newcomer has to have one of the most misleading names in music. A concept album that defies the genre—it’s good and completely non-ridiculous, Regulars and Refugees is the 10th album in a career that has spanned almost 20 years. It’s clear Newcomer has not wasted many (if any) of those years. Her voice is strong, clear and true, her music is polished and often embellished with winning pop sensitivities, and her stories and characters are largely compelling and imbued with a sense of both humanity and spirituality.
The backstory here is that a few years ago, Newcomer wrote a short story called “Betty’s Diner”, which became a song of the same name on her previous release, a “best of” collection that was also called Betty’s Diner. Clearly, the place has a hold on Newcomer’s imagination because this new work is set entirely within said southern Indiana diner. Each of the 13 songs tells its own story, but there is an inevitable and welcome cross-pollenation of characters and themes, and since the CD comes complete with not just the lyrics to each song but also an accompanying series of short stories, it’s easy to be drawn into Carrie Newcomer’s intriguing and inviting world.
The obvious heroine of Regulars and Refugees is waitress Miranda, but each of Newcomer’s characters is a hero in his or her own way, either struggling against the eternal inequities or lending helpful hands as and when they can.
Jennifer (“I Fly”) is a 31-year-old single mother who dances for a living: “They gossip in the grocey line/ But a woman’s gotta do what a woman’s gotta do/ ‘Cause there’s always rent to pay/ And when your kids need new shoes/ There’s nothing else to do but put your pride away.” She’s tried working at the Dollar Mart and cleaning other people’s houses, but couldn’t pay her way on minimum wage. She’s not happy, but she’s strong. And she still has the capacity for hope.
Angela (“A Coal Red Sky”) is an addict, in and out of recovery, who pops in for a cup after her regular meeting: “It’s more than a need, more than desire/ More like a slow heartbreaking fire ... Doesn’t it strike you a little odd/ That something so wrong can feel like God? ... It’s never done, it’s never gone/ It’s calling my name, in a coal red sky.” Angela wears a St. Jude medal. St. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes.
Kevin is a frustrated musician, recently divorced, with a bit of a thing for Miranda. He wishes he could see five years on. Alice and Roy are elderly and still very much in love. They’re given to random acts of secret kindness. And so on and so forth. And Miranda? Miranda is the waitress who wonders where the years have gone but won’t regret a single thing. She wonders “Who knows how far a good deed flies?”
Carrie Newcomer’s music compliments her stories nicely. Regulars and Refugees draws on folk, country, pop, rock, and even a little swingy jazz. It’s not a record for cynics, but it’s a well-crafted collection of thoughtful, touching songs and I have a suspicion it will keep some listeners coming back time and time again. Much like Miranda’s customers at Betty’s Diner.