The Down-home Cosmopolitan

As I drove home last month to visit family for Thanksgiving, I listened to a CD that a friend had given me of music she had written and recorded herself.  I had known for sometime that my old friend Bonnie did the singer/songwriter thing nowadays.  We graduated from the same small, Christian college in south Arkansas some time ago, and she has since gone on to travel the world, create her own master’s degree, get married, take a honeymoon across Asia and start what just might turn into an amazing career in music.

Photo by Jim Yates © 2007. All rights reserved.

I don’t know exactly how to describe Bonnie’s music to you other than to pick apart the various elements she draws from and hope that you can see how the whole constitutes something greater than the sum of the parts.  When you listen to her songs, you will definitely notice two major influences: old-school country music (like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, Sr.) and art songs.

Bonnie garnered a respectable reputation for herself during her undergraduate days at Ouachita for her amazing operatic voice.  No doubt, many believed that she would go on to build a career for herself in opera.  However, they probably did not grasp the full importance of the small-town life Bonnie had grown up with.  Happily, I can tell you that she has denied neither of these aspects and has amazingly woven them together into a tapestry that incorporates the finest elements right beside the simplest grass-roots themes — and vice versa.

Take a song like “Cut My Hair Short (in a Third World Country).”  It opens up with a beautiful and simple rhythm guitar that reminisces classic country and western (back when they actually referred to the genre using both titles) but the lyrics talk about world travels and romantic entanglements before breaking apart into a beautiful display of emotional unfolding true to the style of the aria.

click to enlarge
A milkweed pod opening up to let the wind scatter its seeds.

I liken it to the way a milkweed pod slowly burst forth into a thousand delicate parachutes carrying seeds aloft on the air.  When you first pry the pod open, you see the tightly-packed, white silkiness, but all those filaments compacted together eventually start to catch on currents in the air and begin to unfold and expand and break away into the wind.  The baroque unfolding of textures of melody in “Cut My Hair Short” gives me the same sense of wonder.

You also find the obverse juxtapositioning in her songs.  “Waltz,” for instance resonates as a rich and melancholy aria, but the first line with its classic country theme about “whisky and soda water” leaves you standing in a mire of cognitive dissonance that forces you out of the lull of the beautiful piano work and into the intensity of the lyrics themselves.  In short, Bonnie fuses these seemingly incongruous concepts into a new form that elevates country music to the refinement of the fine arts and rejuvenates the art of art songs with a surge of simplicity and opens them up to the realm of the everyman.  Like she says in “Jealousy and Revenge,” I’ll take whisky with my wine.

Photo by Jim Yates © 2007.  All rights reserved.

Not all of Bonnie’s songs incorporate this intense level of diversity, however.  “Spill” stands alone as a beautiful aria, comparable to the work of Rufus Wainright, that leaves guitars and fiddles aside for the moment.  Meanwhile, “This Town” moves along with an unpretentious country melody that paints a vivid picture of life in the small towns of the South.  In all her music, however, you will find the intermingling of the myriad elements that make Bonnie such an interesting character in and of herself.  Themes like “hills and deltas” and “whisky” and “war” play just as important a role as “art songs” and “opera” and her world travels through Europe and Asia.

I invite you to visit MontgomeryMusic.com (or her MySpace page: Montgomery Trucking) and take a listen to the amazing demo songs Bonnie has compiled there.  You will see that she has found the common element of emotionality that both country and opera share and has melded it into a beautiful new style that I think you will enjoy.

As for rewilding, just like with Serenity, I lift Bonnie’s music up as another example of a possible way to forge elements together whereby we can learn to forge our new future.  I love that in his Afterculture proposal for a diorama scene of a rewilded NYC, Michael Green describes the scene thusly:

Lighting is dimmed and dramatic. The background is a photo-mural. A soundtrack of early morning birdcalls, chanting, digeredoos, etc. The chanting is reminiscent of Appalacian shape-note singing with an odd accent. The overall feeling is East-West and aboriginal. A sense of tranquility pervades the scene. But it is also a kind of puzzle inviting the viewer to “get” what’s going on.

[…]

The whole scene is an amalgam of tribal influences: There’s a strong native American feel, but also Celtic and African, and all accented with techno-debris from our time. The people themselves are racially diverse, simple but cultured, their clothes home-spun, and beautifully embroidered.

Proposal for New York diorama: The Solstice Ceremonies

Again, using the cognitive dissonance inherent with a well-stylized syncretism opens us up to imagine a possibility that would normally elude the civilized mind.

By the way, if you want to catch some of Bonnie’s syncretic styling, live and in-person, you can find her at Cherry Street Artisan in Columbia, MO.  She plays there on Saturday, December 15th, at 8 PM.  Best of all, they won’t even charge you a cover that night.

 
Note: All songs linked, quoted and referenced to in this post remain copyrighted by Bonnie Montgomery 2006 (ASCAP)
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One response to this post.

  1. extremely well-written, rix, and honoring of the greatness that is bonnie and her incredible music.

    her songs stick to my ribs for days; i can’t get enough of her & can only dream of when i might hear her in person someday…

    Reply

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