In rotation: ‘Mark Twain Words & Music’
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In this year that Mark Twain, the quintessential American novelist, humorist and rabble-rouser, has undergone a spike in popularity thanks to the publication of the first volume of his autobiography, the timing couldn’t be better for this musical and spoken-word evocation of his life and times.
This two-CD set, with sales benefiting the Mark Twain Boyhood Home in Hannibal, Mo., is the modern-day equivalent of a radio play, combining Twain’s own words with songs delivered by some of the most respected country and Americana artists, including Emmylou Harris, Brad Paisley, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Rhonda Vincent and Doyle Lawson. Garrison Keillor handles the narration with his signature unhurried Midwestern drawl, Jimmy Buffett voices Twain’s alter ego, Huck Finn, and no less than Clint Eastwood brings Twain himself to life, reciting passages from his autobiography as well as first-person passages from “Life on the Mississippi,” “Roughing It,” “The Innocents Abroad” and other books.
Producer Carl Jackson and his co-executive producer Cindy Lovell show deep respect and affection for Twain’s estimable place in American culture. Lovell wrote narrative passages for Keillor that concisely link the excerpts from his writings and the songs. Those songs, some written for this project, others culled over time dating to Stephen Foster, only fleetingly incorporate Twain’s own words but echo many of the themes he favored and evoke the wild and woolly era in which he lived and wrote.
The narrative sticks largely to biographical particulars, touching only briefly toward the end on his role as a social commentator. It’s entirely possible the producers took to heart Twain’s famous cautionary preface to “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”
“Mark Twain Words & Music”
Mark Twain Home Foundation
— Randy Lewis