Eliza Gilkyson is one of the most respected of singer-songwriters to come out of Texas in the past 30 years, having taken her place in 2003 in the Austin Music Hall of Fame alongside greats such as Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, Nanci Griffith and others. Land of Milk and Honey, her eighth release since 1987, shows once again just how good Gilkyson is.
This album is a satisfying and deeply felt blend of overt political comment and intimate personal observation. It’s bookended by two glorious anti-war songs: Gilkyson’s own “Hiway 9” and an unrecorded Woody Guthrie gem, “Peace Call.” The opener is perhaps the most clever and richly detailed anthem yet written about the conflict in Iraq, and a searing indictment of the American administration that’s prosecuting that war: “Well we got caught sleeping at the sentry post/now we’re standing toe to toe with what we feared the most,” is just one example of her views.
Guthrie’s “Peace Call” is a touching statement of the great American bard’s philosophy, a companion piece to “This Land is Your Land,” in which he blows a bugle not as a call to battle, but as a call to peace. Gilkyson enlists the voices of three friends, Patty Griffin, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Iris Dement, who share the verses with her and combine for some exquisite harmonies. The song, written by Woody in the early 1950s, was included in a couple of printed songbooks, but never recorded in a studio until now.
Throughout the record, Gilkyson is assisted by first-class musicians, including fellow Austin stalwarts Jon Dee Graham and Stephen Bruton (The Resentments) on guitars and vocals, Rob Gjersoe (The Flatlanders) on dobro and National, Fats Kaplan on fiddle, Rich Brotherton, Mike Hardwick and producer-engineer Mark Hallman on guitars, as well as son Cisco Ryder on drums and Glenn Fukunaga on electric and acoustic bass. If you haven’t heard Gilkyson, she’s a more folky version of Lucinda Williams, without all the painful introspection.
The emotional core of the album is “Ballad of Yvonne Johnson,” a harrowing true tale of a battered woman who ends up in prison for murder, co-written by the subject. But even the songs that are about more typical singer-songwriter subjects — “Not Lonely,” “Tender Mercies,” “Wonderland, “Separated” and others — stand out for telling musical or lyrical details. In “Not Lonely,” she sings about a woman who’s alone but self-sufficient, leading off with a verse that combines a handful of cliches on the word “one.” “I am a one-man woman/I live one day at a time/keep one eye open/I got a one-track mind/I’m a one-trick pony/living in a one-horse town …”
“Dark Side of Town” is a gently rocking ballad about a guy who grows up rocking and living hard, but gets himself settled down in order to enjoy the simple life for a few years before his sins take their toll. “Wonderland” and “Separated” are opposite sides of the love-song coin, one optimistic, the other hovering on the edge of resignation.
“Tender Mercies” hides a plea for peace in a song about the grief and fear felt by every mother of a child sent out into a world without mercy. A real treat is “Runnin’ Away,” a song written by Eliza’s father, the late Terry Gilkyson, a successful songwriter himself. This one is a folky, gospel-ish parable that sounds like something else Woody Guthrie could have written.
Undiluted by filler, the 10 tracks of Land of Milk and Honey add up to a powerfully intimate statement of contemporary folk music from a songwriter of the first order.
(Red House Records, 2004)