Various Artists “Songs From Chippy” / <i> Hollywood Records</i>

“Chippy,” which premiered this year in Philadelphia, is a theatrical production based on the diaries of a prostitute who worked the Texas Panhandle in the 1930s.

“Songs From Chippy” is one of the best albums of the year in country music, or any other genre. It brings together one of the most accomplished fraternities of singer-songwriters in the United States, the Austin, Texas, old-buddy network centered around Joe Ely and Butch Hancock. Other leading voices are Wayne Hancock (no relation to Butch), Terry Allen, who wrote the play with his wife, Jo Harvey Allen, and Jo Carol Pierce.

The songs, recorded at Ely’s home studio, sketch some of the main characters from the play, notably its titular namesake, whose earthy humor is balanced by a fear of pay-back in the hereafter for her 6,000 paid liaisons. But it isn’t so much character that drives the songwriting, as an attention to the mood of a certain place at a certain time: hard, bleak and dusty West Texas, during the Depression.

Crusty singing voices abound, and they are utterly persuasive in creating the illusion that we are listening to people who moved across a landscape of barrooms and oil fields more than 50 years ago. All are excellent--not for their vocal purity, but for their lived-in realism and expressiveness. Wayne Hancock is a special find on his two numbers. He truly has a voice out of time, a yodel that harks back to Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers in its ability to convey merriment without ever forgetting that life is a raw and chilly proposition.


The musical settings are drawn from the ‘30s and ‘40s as well. Fiddles, barroom pianos and steel guitars color lively sawdust-coated honky-tonk tunes and Western swing. Ghostly folk strains emerge for some of the graver numbers, and Ely introduces a dire, ominous work-song beat on his oil-boom epic, “Cold Black Hammer.”

Chippy emerges as an admirable figure, but this is no cliched, hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold tale. There’s nothing quaint or cute about it. The songs are about people who scrape for their money and grasp for some human connection. They are unable to hold either for long, and they carry with them a sense that bleakness, sparseness and loneliness are the fated lot of the place they inhabit.

But the closing valediction, “Roll Around,” delivered by Butch Hancock in his reedy, Dylanesque bard’s voice, suggests that philosophical beauty can grow even amid barrenness and loss. Narrow and hard as life might have been for Chippy and her consorts, they have tried mightily to enjoy it, and the greatness of their yearnings has risen above the meanness of their circumstances.

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