Ellis Paul

Folkie Paul's new path takes him to Oxford

Press & Sun-Bulletin

Friday, May 12, 2006

by Chris Kocher

From the first moments of Ellis Paul's latest album, American Jukebox Fables,one thing is pretty obvious: This ain't your granddad's folk music. Opening song Blacktop Train includes thumping beats, a snappy horn section and haunting, wordless vocals (supplied by singer Rachael Davis). It's not exactly a Dylan-goes-electric revelation, but it's still a surprise from a singer/songwriter who has built his reputation in the sometimes sedate world of folk music.

Paul was writing what were "country tunes" at heart when he teamed up with Irish single-named musician/producer Flynn, known for his studio wizardry, to help bring his Fables to life. Two worlds - acoustic folk and shimmering pop - met in the middle.

"It was a partnership," Paul said. "I came in with a bunch of banjos and accordions, and he came in with a laptop and keyboards and a hard drive." The experiment succeeded in large part because of Paul's solid songwriting skills.

Over the course of 12 albums, he has evolved into a storyteller capable of painting musical landscapes on canvases large and small, from sweeping vistas to tender portraits of private moments.

Fables is no different: Blacktop Train uses the legendary Route 66 as a metaphor for America, offering a turbocharged tour through the nation's heartland. The rest of the 13-track album can be seen as stops along the way, visiting people and sharing their experiences.

Kiss the Sun (A Song for Pat Tillman) tells of a U.S. soldier in Iraq starting to question his principles -and those of his country - in the heat and death he encounters in the desert. Paul based the song on letters he exchanged with a member of the military; it's also a tribute to Tillman, the NFL star who gave up a
multimillion-dollar contract to join the Army and was killed by "friendly fire" in Afghanistan.

Paul said he felt moved by "the sacrifice and the waste of war and how it kills some our best and most talented people. ... Every loss we have over there is the loss of our future - one little cog in our future machine. (Pat) was a big loss." "He was no more heroic than anyone else who died over there, but the things he sacrificed were greater," he said. "He was walking away from a lucrative career, financial security, and fame and fortune. His heroism isn't greater than anyone else's, but his sacrifice was heroic as well - he walked away to join up. He was a hero before he even picked a gun up."

The emotional Jukebox On My Grave has Paul wishing for a more fitting tribute after his death: "Don't want no headstone / no cold tears / just a jukebox to say / a music man lays here." The song name-checks many of Paul's influences and heroes, including Johnny Cash, George Jones, Joni Mitchell and Marvin

Alice's Champagne Palace is the story of a real bar in Homer, Alaska, where the people are unfailingly friendly and don't ask a lot of questions about your past - a place where "misfit toys, renegade women (and) runaway boys" can find a home.

The soaring, catchy arrangement and fun lyrics are sure to put a smile on your face and make you wonder if moving to Alaska might be a good idea. (If it's not the theme of the Homer Chamber of Commerce, it should be.)

Paul tries out a little rock 'n' roll on Bad, Bad Blood, the story of a modernday Bonnie and Clyde whose exploits and final confrontation with police are covered live by ratings-hungry television news networks.

Amid all the plush new furniture, Paul doesn't neglect the intimate tunes that built his reputation. The stripped-down sentiment of Time finds a man pining for a love lost in life's shifting sands. In Goodbye Hollywood, reminiscent of theclassic Please Come To Boston, two lovers can't stay apart when one moves
from the glitz of Los Angeles to the cornfields of Iowa. And in the hearttugging Clarity, a woman born out of wedlock seeks the father she knows only from a faded photograph.

Initial reaction to Fables from fans and critics was mixed, but Paul believes many of them have been won over in the year since the album's release. It also helps that acoustic versions are what he plays on the road, thereby pleasing both sides of the pop-vs.-folk argument.

"It was definitely outside the box of some people's comfort zones, but we wanted to go for it," he said. "I've been doing this for 15 years and could have put out another acoustic folk record and not learned anything from it. So we went for it - we tried some pop production, and we had a lot of fun. "Yeah, the purist people probably wouldn't like anything on the record, but I've never really tried to please anybody - I just tried to do what I felt was right at the moment, and that was the record I needed to do at that time."

Paul has never been one to stay on the beaten path. Born in rural Maine, he headed to college on a track scholarship - but a knee injury ended all that. During his recuperation, he found a new calling: "I picked up guitar because I had a lot of free time and I was bored. It was a creative outlet, and I got addicted to it."

After college, as he performed his music around Boston's folk clubs, he also worked for five years as a social worker for inner-city children. The job gave him insight into the good and bad of human nature.

"When you do have success, the payoff is pretty great. Knowing that I affected some people's lives in a positive way is worth more than the money I got paid." Even so, he admitted, "I was ready to jump ship when I got out."

These days, Paul is living in Charlottesville, Va., plotting out a "best-of" CD for the fall and an album of new material for next year. He also has a more personal focus: his wife and young daughter.

"The whole planet's different now - but I'm enjoying myself. It's well worth all the sacrifices," he said of having a child. "My daughter's name is Ella, and she's the best thing I have going on in my life."

Just think of all the stories he'll have ready for her, once she's old enough to appreciate her dad's gift for telling them.

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