Article by Kerry Dexter
In a used bookstore in Bloomington, Indiana, Tim Grimm began leafing through a small book. He was aware of the author, Scott Russell Sanders, a writer of both fiction and non fiction, but Grimm had never come across this long out-of-print book. Within its pages he found stories, some a page or two long, some just a paragraph or two, about people and events in the Ohio Valley in the days between the American Revolution and the Civil War, a time when Indiana and Ohio were frontier country just turning to settled land. The book was called:
Wilderness Plots: Tales About the Settlement of the American Land.
Within the pages of this little book, he heard songs.
Every month, Grimm meets up with a group of fellow songwriters to share ideas, inspiration, and challenges. Tom Roznowski, Michael White, Carrie Newcomer, and Krista Detor were the other members of the group at the time he came across the book. ”We give each other challenges,” Newcomer explains. “Sometimes it might be about form: come back next month and bring a song that has no chorus and make it work, for example. Sometimes it’s about ideas: come back next month with a song from the stories in this little book. That pushes you to use all the crayons in your box of crayons,” she adds. “You have all these tools as a songwriter, and when you step outside what you normally do, you have to think about them a little differently
The five are very different voices, both in writing style and in physical singing voices, so they each came up with quite different approaches to these pieces of history. What the songs they made hold in common, though, are graceful storytelling, vivid use of language and music, and strong sense of character and place.
Though it hadn’t been their original plan, over the months the five liked the music they were coming up with so well that they decided to make an album. They decided to call it Wilderness Plots in honor of the stories which inspired the songs.
At times, the songs hew quite closely to the story line on the printed page. At others, there’s just one line that informs the song, and with others, the substance is the musician thinking about ideas suggested by the tale.
In the song Aurora, written by Detor, she and Grimm sing as a couple testing their spirit and their marriage as they move from the known into the unknown to pioneer a town in the wilderness. Roznowski speaks in the words of a man who looks at trees and sees cities rising in Trees, and Grimm ponders the thoughts of another who is a both a cobbler and a preacher and has an experience which changes his view of both callings in Frostbite on the Soul. In Israel Coe, White adds in a song that will make you laugh and at the same time remind you of how hard frontier life could be.
Newcomer looks at a seller of dubious medicines who ends up searching his soul In Healing Waters. In Biscuits and Butter she offers a sparely written story of a woman coming to terms with loss, death, and grief on the frontier, and in One Woman and a Shovel, Newcomer brings in a feisty woman who is inspired by hope. Hope inspires Detor’s character In More Than I Dare Say, as well, a woman who is taking an unusual step of determination to make things better for her children.
There are nineteen songs in all on the album, weaving a rich tapestry of hopes, dreams, change, fears, and history.
It didn’t stop with this recording, either. Grimm, Detor, and Newcomer have each recorded alternate versions and additional songs inspired by Wilderness Plots on their own solo albums, and WTIU, the public television station based at Indiana University in Bloomington, has done two programs on the music. One finds the musicians in a songwriter’s circle, singing the songs and talking about the landscape and ideas they drew on for the writing of them, and the other is a concert presentation.
You may see some of the concert footage at the WTIU web site, and here is an excerpt from the writer’s circle program, a song written by Krista Detor on which all five sing.
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