Well, Jeff Tweedy said it: "You'll never hear it on the radio / Can't hear it on the radio..." That statement may be true for the new release from songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Michael Holland, one-half of Chapel Hill, NC's Jennyanykind, but it's even more likely that Bootlegger's Dreams is right up Mr. Tweedy's alley. The strummed chords and alcohol-soaked vocals of the opening track "Chandelier" seem to take a page straight from the Wilco playbook. The only rub is that this solo collection of Holland's was first released back in 1999, a couple of years before Wilco's "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart". Bootlegger's Dreams was kept under wraps while Jennyanykind released I Need You (2000) and last year's Peas and Collards. Those albums completed the band's shift to roots rock; Bootlegger, meanwhile, reveals what was brewing in Holland's gut at a more visceral level.
Bootlegger's Dreams was inspired by an untitled poem about an anguished moonshine bootlegger contemplating his wife's peaceful sleep. Holland, whose work with Jennyanykind includes the use of spooky slide guitar and melodic bass lines, sought to pursue a couple of different goals with this recording: to reconnect with his southern Appalachian roots, and to make a wedding present for his then-to-be wife. It's not ours to know how successful the latter faired, but it is obvious that Bootlegger is not the bald-faced pastiche of traditional bluegrass music that it might seem. Rather, it is a subtle effort to capture the metaphysical rhythms and motion of Appalachia.
From start to finish Holland employs two distinct conventions to make his point: a continuous 1-2-3 waltz cadence, and a reliance on simple two-chord structures. The rhythm is underscored on the album's second track, a seven and a half minute instrumental entitled "Appalachian Meditation". The beat is a metronomic loop, enveloped by the warm hum of ascending chords played on a Hammond organ. From the outset it's clear this ain't your grandpa's Appalachia. At first blush this seems to reflect the influx of New Age culture into the hills over the course of the past twenty-five years or so -- the building Buddhist temples and hippie communes in places where Daniel Boone once "killed him some bars". But listen again: the pounding might as easily recollect an air-drill applied to a fresh coal seam in Kentucky, or a logger's steady chopping at the base of a she-balsam in North Carolina. An acoustic guitar is noodled with conviction over these rustic textures. Picture John McLaughlin with a guitar, sitting on the porch of a log cabin in the mountains, improvising based on the solitude of the scene. "Play My Guitar" uses similar looping and atmospherics to achieve a comparable effect.
The pace livens with dance numbers like the spirited "Make the Night Last Forever" and the banjo-driven "Something to Believe In" (though the former features eerily disembodied vocals and a disturbingly off-key trumpet). But it's the moments of fragile transparency, like "Heads is Tails" (where Holland combines love and transcendence with the repeated line "I think she is freedom") that leave the deepest impression. An almost religious zeal for love consumes this record. Holland preaches in Solomonesque proverbs:
"Keep your woman happy/ Keep her satisfied/ Eat of her like candy/ Drink of her like wine" ("Love Like Wine")
The poignant "Walk With Me My One" is unabashedly romantic. Against an acoustic lullaby the singer tenderly captures the essence of his love:
"It's not the way you float around/ Or watch the menfolk stammer around you/ It's the way you laugh about them..."
The only misstep on this record is the mysteriously truncated version of "True Feelings". MP3's for all of Bootlegger's tracks were once available on Big John's web site -- long enough for this reviewer to become acquainted with the lyrics. The original mix of "True Feelings" ended with the strongest thematic statement on the whole album: "While you sit in the dark strumming your broken guitar / I'll be out in the sun loving and laughing". Running time does not seem to be of the essence here, so it is unclear why the final verse was chopped off. Thankfully, a howling harmonica solo that blows right through the brooding ambience of the piece remains intact.
Bootlegger's Dreams provides an excellent insight into how Michael Holland worked out a logical musical rhetoric for himself before bringing those energies back to his band. By his own admission he did not write this music for mass consumption, but what serious artist does? The integration of theme and purpose make this a worthwhile listen -- even if you can't find it on the radio.