The Common Good
July-August 1999

Music of the Spirit

by Tom Walsh | July-August 1999

David Wilcox's labor of love.

A 1997 Washington Post profile of David Wilcox asked the musical question, "Why Isn’t David Wilcox a Big Star?" Well, it’s because the mainstream music industry—or "the big machine," as he calls it—has no room for a David Wilcox. His brand of personal, acoustic folk music is out of fashion today—not that it ever was in fashion. Every so often, a Tracy Chapman or a Shawn Colvin mysteriously emerges into the Big Time. But folk artists, traveling around on their small-gauge circuit, know that such breakthroughs are the longest of long shots in our blockbuster, celebrity culture. If one is going to make folk music, it had better be a labor of love.

Labors of love have their rewards, however. One reward for the folk performer is a devoted, tight-knit community of people who listen—really listen. They aren’t numerous, but they are serious about the music, and the word "love" is not too strong to describe their feelings for it. For this community, Wilcox evokes particularly intense devotion. Why?

His new effort, Underneath, provides clues, but not a complete answer. In his gift for capturing a truth and expressing it in song lyrics, Wilcox has no peer. His words are by turns abstract and full of images, linear and obtuse, solemn and sly, gentle and confrontational. He has, as they say, all the right moves. He’ll spin from one apt metaphor to another within a song, or he’ll take a single metaphor and turn it into an entire song, shining his light on surprising facets. When Wilcox sings that a "Young Man Dies," it’s only to transform a metaphor of death into an unexpected celebration of rebirth into maturity.

"Down Here" evokes community. Wilcox describes people who are "different," "outcast," "weird," "cast aside," and living in a dungeon "under the radar of the status quo." But the tone is celebratory, and the emphasis is on the longing of the privileged "up there" for the fellowship the outsiders enjoy.

Wilcox also is direct. "All My Life" describes the vertigo of new love: "Do you believe in signs that whisper inside your mind ‘til you have to follow through, leading you home again to someplace you’ve never been? Well I feel that way for you." Later he decides to "take the chance and tell you." Wilcox has explained that this refers to a woman who asked him on their first date what he was thinking about. He told her the truth: He was imagining what color their children’s eyes would be. (Note for the curious: It worked—they are now married. He was also right about the eye color.)

OF COURSE, THERE is more to Wilcox than clever lyrics. He writes beautiful melodies, his voice is smooth and winsome, and his guitar technique—better appreciated in person than on record—is unique. Wilcox is known for using non-standard guitar tunings, and the inventiveness of his arrangements is lost on most of his fans: They just know how good he sounds. And Underneath features pleasing background vocals from the likes of Ashley Cleveland and Alison Krauss (who also turns up on viola). Some songs are presented with only Wilcox’s voice and guitar, letting the gem-like songs shine through with maximum clarity, and that’s when Underneath sounds best.

The life Wilcox describes is life in the Spirit, and the place he describes is the reign of God. In general, however, spirituality is dealt with less directly on Underneath than on earlier Wilcox efforts. His songs have always had a deep spiritual power, and through the late 1980s and early 1990s they charted his search for faith—and then celebrated his arrival at it. Because his songs deal frankly with spiritual themes but avoid Christian language, many believers have puzzled over his faith stance. In interviews, however, Wilcox has (reluctantly) stated that it is Jesus he follows.

As much depth as there is to Underneath, it does not pack quite the spiritual and emotional punch of earlier Wilcox albums. His most powerful records, How Did You Find Me Here (1989) and Big Horizon (1994), contain anthem-like songs of desperate spiritual longing and joyous discovery, respectively. Those songs still represent the climax of Wilcox’s live performances, so it isn’t clear why fewer such songs have appeared on his latest albums. Of course, there may well be some explanation in his life, for with this kind of music, the songs are products of the life of the person who writes them. That said, even if he is not at his best on Underneath, Wilcox at less than his best is still wonderful.

TOM WALSH lives in Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood and works at the U.S. Congress.

Underneath. David Wilcox. Vanguard Records, 1999.

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