When one thinks of a male folk singer from anywhere but Texas, the image of a squirrelly guy in long hair and wire-rim glasses is probably the first to come to mind. The idea of a well-paid rounder, who opted for a professional music career only after a probation officer said he could no longer leave the country to ply his blackjack trade, just doesn't seem to fit the bill. For a certain singer/songwriter that left home at 19 to make it big in Las Vegas counting cards, though, that's the skinny.
Yes, Kenny Rogers sung the tale of "The Gambler" and managed to engrain it in the minds of millions. But, there is probably not an entertainer alive that knows the life of the card shark better than singer/songwriter Darryl Purpose. He's a former world-class blackjack player who, by the age of 22, had ripped-off nearly every casino on the planet. Purpose is also a one-time activist and acclaimed tunesmith. Having trotted the globe seeking fortune in the world's grandest gambling dens and then literally walking across the country to protest the use of nuclear weapons during the mid-'80s ("I Can Get There from Here" is dedicated to his fellow Great Peace Marchers), Purpose has more fascinating stories to draw from than most songwriters could ever imagine. However, in his music, Purpose usually only hints at his spectacular past -- opting instead to incorporate everyman anecdotes he absorbs on the road into tight-knit narratives that crackle with both wit and humor.
On his latest release, A Crooked Line Purpose delivers a well-focused collection of story songs loosely grounded in California experiences (the state where he was raised). The album consists of mostly Purpose penned originals and co-writes. It also includes a tender reading of "The River Where She Sleeps", a song by Purpose's close friend, fellow folk singer Dave Carter, who unexpectedly passed this July.
Regardless of the subject matter, Purpose approaches each song with the naked, eager emotive style of a young man half his age -- close your eyes while listening to the disc and you'll envision a thin, gangly 23-year-old rather than the husky, bearded 46-year-old glaring back at you in the liner notes. Purpose's pinched, Caucasian whine is far from rich or varied (it's decidedly folk) but it's an effective tool, nonetheless, in that the singer implements it wisely, like a well-trained character actor, to convey a myriad of emotions with equal aplomb. All ten tracks are acoustic arrangements consisting of smartly placed guitar, pedal steel, banjo, dobro and the occasional electric six-string, or drum set, and provide Purpose with a balmy backdrop on which to lean his dry, reaching vocals.
Although each cut is loosely tied together with references to Cali, the subject matter differs greatly. The opening track, for instance, is a sly meditation on post-Civil War America set in the 19th Century. It concerns the first time a United States president, Rutherford Hayes, ever visited California and then dissects the context of the occurrence. The title track, which follows, allows Purpose to sing from the perspective of an outlaw who has been on the mean streets of Los Angeles since he was 13 and, now, as a struggling adult, has come to realize that "the shortest path between two points is still a crooked line". On the third track, though, Purpose deftly switches gears and sings from the perspective of a woman whose husband has abandoned her and now she can't decide, if he returned, whether she would "shoot him in the face or tell him that he was late for dinner". (Purpose said in a recent interview that he picked this line up right from a woman's mouth whom he met while passing through her town in New England.)
Throughout the album, Purpose displays a sympathetic ear for melody and therefore he doesn't allow himself to get bogged down in the kind of ennui-inducing, minor-key, folkie fare that plagues the music of so many other artists working the same coffee-house circuits. In terms of lyrics, Purpose lacks the same awe-inspiring poetic eye that allows a choice Townes Van Zandt or Guy Clark line to stick like a dart in one's ear. However, Purpose is quick to find the humor in each of his explorations of life's pathos and that's what makes his tales memorable.