In some ways, the line from his first album in 1962 to this one is straight and short, especially when one considers that Paxton has released more than 50 discs over the years.
"I changed by not changing at all."
-- Pearl Jam, "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town
According to the late, great Dave Van Ronk, Tom Paxton initiated the change from folk musicians performing traditional material to writing their own songs. While historians commonly credit Bob Dylan for this, Paxton was on the scene first and achieved widespread local popularity for his self-written tunes. Van Ronk should know. He was there at the center of the Greenwich Village revival of the 1960s and good friends with both artists. Dylan, of course, went on and continually transformed. He went electric, country, gospel, etc. and now has a wonderful new album of American pop standards sung first by Frank Sinatra, Shadows in the Night. Paxton hasn’t. He’s still performing original acoustic folk music much like he always did.
The good news is that Paxton still pens really good songs and performs them well. Paxton’s compositional skills are well known. After all, he wrote several contemporary classics, such as "The Last Thing on My Mind", "Ramblin’ Boy", and "Whose Garden Was This". On these 13 new songs, Paxton continues to mine the same basic melodies and themes. Redemption Road contains silly songs, romantic tales, protest anthems, and such that are reminiscent of his earlier albums. In some ways, the line from his first album in 1962 to this one is straight and short, especially when one considers that he has released more than 50 discs over the years.
Paxton waxes nostalgic on several tracks. He praises Van Ronk on "The Mayor of Macdougal Street", whom Paxton calls a giant among pygmies. He croons sweetly without being sugary about old romances and life choices on "Time to Spare" and "Ireland". Paxton, who was made several albums of kids music, gets less than serious on "Skeeters’ll Gitcha" (with John Prine) and "Susie Most of All". He’s also righteous about injustice and proclaims that "If the Poor Don’t Matter" then none of us do in the eyes of the lord. We have a duty to those with less, and we ignore the imperative to help others at our own risk.
However, these brief descriptions do not convey Paxton’s intelligence and humanity. He deals with love and loss, sex and death, in clever ways that cut through the bull without preaching or using fancy language. He presumes his audience is smart enough to understand the world around us and what’s important. We appreciate a story well told, a lesson that inspires us to be better, an appreciation of our particular memories and our shared ones. Paxton knows nothing lasts forever and is still struck by the beauty of the world and its peoples. He's realistic enough to understand the fragility and temporal nature of it all.
The title track, performed with Janis Ian, directly confronts the possibility of redemption: the big question of what is the meaning of life. He wrote the lyrics to a preexisting instrumental by Geoff Bartley from 2008. And in all his wisdom, Paxton humbly acknowledges he doesn’t know either. All he comprehends is that time passes. The melody suggests the quiet dignity of death. Life may be a mystery, but that’s no reason to presume it hasn’t been worth the pleasure and the pain.
Paxton received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award back in 2009. The recording business has changed, and he no longer has label backing or obligations. The record was the direct result of a successful Kickstarter campaign. This really isn’t much different than his first album on the private Gaslight label back in 1962. Paxton hasn’t changed. He’s still an extraordinary writer, singer, and performer of self-penned songs in the acoustic folk tradition.