Shawn Colvin named her 2012 memoir after one of two songs that had persuaded her she could fulfil her ambition of becoming a successful songwriter. Diamond In The Rough was the title of that painfully honest autobiography but it could easily have been called Shotgun Down The Avalanche, a moving account of a relationship in meltdown.
The relationship in question was with the guitarist and producer John Leventhal, now making marvellous music with his wife Rosanne Cash. Some of Colvin’s finest songs have been collaborations with Leventhal – at two pivotal points in her career, the first as their affair unravelled and later during the making of the seminal A Few Small Repairs.
When they first hooked up in New York in the early Eighties, Colvin described her guitar guru as ‘Ry Cooder, George Harrison and Hank Williams rolled into one’. The inspiration was mutual. ‘We needed each other. He had trouble with singing and lyrics, and I had trouble writing generally. My heroes were songwriters. I just wasn’t a natural at it – I’m still not.’
Diamond In The Rough, a song that deals, like the book itself, with emotional healing, was her epiphany moment. ‘The singer-songwriter had found her voice. I got it!’
In a little while I got steeped in authority Heaven only knows what went wrong There is nothing so cruel than to bury that jewel When it was mine all along And I'm gonna find it
You're shining, I can see you You're smiling, that's enough I'm holding on to you Like a diamond in the rough Like a diamond in the rough
Leventhal finger-picked a minor-key melody for Colvin’s next composition. She had always wanted to use the word ‘avalanche’ in a song and completed the evocative image with ‘riding shotgun’ for her tale of heartbreak. However beautifully the music was blending with her exquisite phrasing and his inventive fretwork, the romance with Leventhal was in descent. The writing process, as would always be the case, was cathartic…
So be quiet tonight The stars shine bright On this mountain of new fallen snow But I will raise my voice into the void You have left me nowhere to go
I love you so much and it's so bizarre A mystery that goes on and on and on This is the best thing and the very most hard And we don't get along
After countless appeals We keep spinning our wheels On this mountain of new fallen snow So I let go the catch and we are over the edge You have left me nowhere to go I’m riding shotgun down the avalanche
Even the ungrammatical ’the very most hard’ feels right in context. Colvin was keen to test her lyrics on a significant audience – ‘performing is the ultimate bullshit detector’. She found her sounding board at the Passim coffeehouse in Cambridge, Massachusetts. ‘I ended the set with Diamond In The Rough. They bought it. No one called the songwriter police.’
Those two songs and another Colvin-Leventhal creation, Steady On, appeared on her debut LP of that name in 1989. It won her a first Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. It had taken nearly a year to complete but, given the tensions between the two protagonists, this was a considerable achievement. Steady On was a foot-tapper but despite the lightness of the chorus there was a dark undercurrent…
I was feeling imploded A wooden smile, a wooden heart Then things exploded Like rockets in the dark Now I'm pulling out splinters And I'm off to hibernate somewhere For the nuclear winter Of another love affair
Steady On also included the gorgeous Ricochet In Time, a self-penned number she still loves to play and further proof that here was a writer of substance and a singer of subtlety.
I kill dreams in the chase
I slap love in the face…
I crawled up from the sewer
For something that was truer than I intended
I ended up on my knees…
I bruise my friends for more I rail at heaven's door
I enjoyed the follow-up albums, Fat City (Polaroids and Round Of Blues in particular) and her first collection of interpretive songs Cover Girl, but it was A Few Small Repairs nearly 21 years ago which signalled a new coming of age for a fortysomething who had waited too long for her big breakthrough. Colvin is soon embarking on an anniversary US tour to celebrate an expanded, remastered edition of the album, à la her beloved Beatles with Sgt Pepper.
A Few Small Repairs featured her best-known top 10 hit, Sunny Came Home, ‘the story of a tortured housewife’s revenge’, which won her and Leventhal a Grammy double for Record and Song of the Year. After Colvin’s upper and downer days of alcoholism, depression, panic attacks and constant recourse to therapy, such recognition was richly deserved. Her self-confessed struggle with emotional commitment has not stopped her being disarmingly intimate with her fanbase. Her candour is the key to a connection she thrives on.
The American’s textured yet achingly vulnerable voice, described by one Guardian reviewer as ‘moving effortlessly from bruise-tender to scar-hard’, is showcased perfectly on Sunny; and Leventhal’s imprint is there too. ‘It occurred that maybe enough water had gone under the bridge for John and me to take a stab at writing again. I called him in 1994, and the next thing I knew he had flown down to Austin to meet me. The tension was gone. The writing was magically easy.’
It was a last-minute decision to name the subject in the song Sunny based on the figure in her artist friend Julie Speed’s painting for the album cover. It shows a girl with three eyes holding a match and setting the prairie on fire, just as Colvin had done as a child in small-town South Dakota. Her father had had to extinguish it. ‘Having learned nothing from this experience, I went on as an adult to continue setting fires… All my fires backfired. But Sunny’s didn’t. Sunny is me. Both Sunny and I went through a lot and came out the other side.’
Sunny came home with a list of names She didn't believe in transcendence It's time for a few small repairs she said Sunny came home with a vengeance
She says days go by I’m hypnotised I'm walking on a wire I close my eyes and fly out of my mind Into the fire
Colvin’s penchant for ‘speaking in tongues’, building on impromptu phrases, was rewarded again on A Few Small Repairs; as with Avalanche on her first album, You And The Mona Lisa and Wichita Skyline (think Wichita Lineman and Nashville Skyline) showed that nonsense can eventually make perfect sense. Leventhal’s deep tremolo break on Skyline is a nod of respect to Glen Campbell’s guitar part on the sublime song Jimmy Webb wrote for him.
The follow-up album in 2001, Whole New You, flopped commercially. It had not been properly promoted, according to Colvin, which was a pity as there were some memorable songs, among them Nothing Like You, dedicated to her daughter Callie, and the enduring A Matter Of Minutes.
The stars, and Leventhal, were realigned five years later – after Colvin's bout of writer’s block – for These Four Walls. ‘Writing is like sport,’ she says. ‘You have to show up, and you have to practise. Some days the lyrics start to come out from an unconscious part of you. Other times you’re so conscious of them not coming out that you want to scream. But as long as you keep making yourself available to the music and to the emotions you fill it with, good things can happen.’
They did. The bar was raised and songs praised, notably Fill Me Up, Summer Dress, Cinnamon Road, Venetian Blue, That Don’t Worry Me Now and especially her own composition I’m Gone (note the melodic hints of Steve Winwood’s Can’t Find My Way Home).
It was the same impressive story in 2012 when Colvin’s memoir coincided with the release of the Buddy Miller-produced All Fall Down, except there were more co-writers here than just Leventhal and further solo efforts (Knowing What I Know Now and Change Is On The Way are my standouts). Performing alliances followed with old bandmates and soulmates Miller himself, Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Mary Chapin Carpenter and, memorably in 2016, Steve Earle. Uncovered, her second album of covers the year before, could easily have been the title of her soul-baring book. She wears her heart on the inner sleeve.
As the charred prairies of her childhood and that Sunny masterpiece testify, there is still fire in this polished diamond. But I keep coming back to the avalanche: Shawn Colvin in her element.