JIM PATTON & SHERRY BROKUS/HIMES/BIOGRAPHY 2013
By Geoffrey Himes
In his early 60s, an age when most singer-songwriters have been in decline for a decade or more, Jim Patton has improbably deepened and broadened his art. For his new album with his wife and longtime musical partner Sherry Brokus, The Great Unknown, Patton has crafted 10 new songs that do more than explain himself to his listeners; these songs explain those listeners to themselves. For many years Patton has shined a revealing light on his own past and the inside of his own head. But with this record, he aims his flashlight into other skulls and into the future. The Great Unknown, indeed.
The new album begins with one of his best-ever songs, “On the Day I Leave This World,” which allows him to imagine his eventual, inevitable death. It’s a surprisingly humble song; it doesn’t describe that death as a momentous event but rather as another turning of the page. Some friends will be sad, but dogs will go on chasing squirrels as they’ve always done; “This merry-go-round will keep on spinning.” That balance of sadness and naturalness is tricky to capture, but Patton does it not only in his writing but in his vocal as well.
“I made ‘On the Day I Leave This World’ partially because it was a song I couldn’t have written 10 years ago. On the other hand, it’s ‘Fortunate Man’ updated,” Patton says, referring to his earlier song, an audience favorite. “It’s a sequel in the sense that I’m getting to the end of that fortunate life. I had this epiphany that I’ve had this great life, and I’d never looked at it that way. I’d always looked to what happened next. But I’ve had several close friends die in the past year. when a friend came down with cancer and we knew it was a death sentence. I sat down and wrote that song. it’s also a recognition that when any of us die, the world will go on. They’ll sing a few songs about us and then go on with their lives.”
The album contains songs about ex-lovers who can’t let go, brow-beaten children who can’t forget, and middle-aged rock’n’rollers who won’t give up. All these characters want to reach new territory, unknown and perhaps greater than anything they’ve known, before the day they leave this world. “It’s easy to show when someone has a problem and when someone has overcome the problem,” Brokus says, “but it’s getting from point A to point B that’s hard to describe.” But that’s just what Patton and Brokus capture in these songs, thanks in large part to the terrific Texas musicians who frame their voices.
“When I started writing songs,” Patton concedes, “I only wrote about myself, and now that’s not true. I think it’s natural. You start out with a narrow perspective but as you grow older and move out into the world, you write more about that world. And my musicianship is so much better, because I’ve been playing with such great musicians. The people here are so easy to work with; they have to be because there are so many great people that if you’re not easy to work with, singers will work with someone else. Being a better guitar player makes you a better songwriter, because it allows you to play the things you’re hearing in your head.”
Patton’s willingness to climb inside other people’s heads has created an expanded role for Brokus in the duo’s music. For the first time on one of their albums, she takes more lead vocals than he does, and her long career as a therapist allows her to convincingly assume the personas of the troubled narrators of “Drown” and “I’m Alright Now.” Neither she nor her husband has ever suffered the addiction and trauma of these two protagonists, but they’ve been close enough to understand it and articulate it as the characters themselves never could.
“A lot of my therapeutic practice influences my vocals,” Brokus acknowledges. “In ‘Glen Oak Blues,’ the person who’s being spoken to is struggling, but she’s getting out. In ‘I’m Alright Now,’ the person speaking is struggling but getting out. When I’m singing these songs, I draw on the emotions I see the people I work with are going through. Or I can find a moment in my own life that I can tap into. I as the singer am walking in the footsteps of the character; I can understand the pain they’re going through.
“In ‘I’m Alright Now,’ she adds, “the person in the last verse is hoping that person they’re talking is going to make it too. It could be a friend that they’ve gotten in trouble with or an old friend who’s also had problems, but they’re letting them know that it’s possible to come out on the other side. Part of it’s that I’m an optimistic person who believes that people can change their own lives. I even have hope for the person in ‘Drown;’ Jim may have given up on that person, but I still believe that he can change.”
“Drown” is a co-write for Patton, Brokus and Austin/Atlanta singer-songwriter Jeff Talmadge. Brokus came up with the bridge melody, and Patton describes Talmadge as the “Maxwell Perkins of the album.” Like the legendary the editor for Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, Talmadge lent shape to Patton’s prolific output. In many cases, Talmadge made the songs’ narrators more recessive and thus more seductive.
Ron Flynt produced Patton & Brokus for the third straight album. Flynt crafted the ingenious acoustic/electric arrangements that keep the duo’s voices and acoustic guitar out front, while subtly reinforcing them with electric bass and keyboards.
The result is a sound that closely resembles the duo’s live shows, where the emphasis is on the lyrics that are the key to the act’s appeal. The lanky, silver-haired Patton plays acoustic guitar next to the petite, dark-haired Brokus, who handles a variety of hand percussion. Even at house concerts and folk clubs, however, the duo often brings along an extra musician to embellish the songs, and that’s the feel of the record as well. Providing that enhancement on The Great Unknown are guitarist/keyboardist Ron Flynt, lead guitarist Mary Cutrufello, mandolinist Marvin Dykhuis, fiddler Warren Hood, cellist Julie Carter and percussionist John Bush.
“They’re playing those acoustic instruments with a rock’n’roll feel,,” Patton explains; “it’s Who and Animals licks on cittern and mandolin. You go in with acoustic instruments and you play real hard. The fact that we perform as an acoustic act informs that decision, but I wouldn’t use the keyboards if I were worried about it too much. When people see us play live and they buy the album, they want it to sound something like what they just heard. John Bush, who used to play with the New Bohemians, doesn’t play what other percussionists might play behind a singer-songwriter; he plays with a rock’n’roll feel. He and Ron are responsible for that sound.
“Without intending to, we stumbled onto a sound that’s right for us. We stumbled on to it, because we had to make an album to take advantage of the doors opening to us in the folk world and Americana. You’re forced into certain limitations which allow you to discover things. When you hear a loud electric guitar on these songs, it’s the expected thing. But when you hear a loopy mandolin with acoustic guitar or organ with acoustic guitar, that’s unusual. I’m a literate songwriter; I write stories. This sound clears out space for me.”
The album’s title reverberates with many associations, among them a line from the Bob Dylan song, “I’ll Remember You” from the 1985 Empire Burlesque album. “When I’m all alone in the great unknown,” Dylan sings, “I’ll remember you.” Patton has always been a great rememberer; though he has lived in Texas since 1994, most of his songs are set in Maryland, where he and Brokus lived until they were in their early 40s. On the new album, “Just a Memory,” “Drown,” “I’m Alright Now,” “Happy Anniversary” and “Glen Oak Blues” all make references to the Baltimore-Washington region, where the duo once co-led a rock’n’roll band called Edge City.
The first line you hear on Edge City’s 2006 album, Keeper of the Flame, is Patton singing, “This isn’t the life that I pictured, but this is the life that I chose.” Lloyd Maines’ dobro bends notes towards but not quite to a different harmony, as the rhythm section of Glenn Fukunaga and Freddie Krc pushes the beat towards but not quite to another gear, the resulting tension raises the question: Why would anyone choose a life different from the one they pictured? Because reality is never the same as fantasy. And in exploring the territory between the two, Patton was evolving into a distinctive songwriting voice.
When Patton grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore, enthralled by the music of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Neil Young, he pictured himself living a life like his heroes. He clung to that dream even as he formed Edge City and married his singing partner, Sherry Brokus. But the rock star’s life is reserved for only a handful and as he reached 35, Patton realized he was not one of the chosen few. At that point, he could have done what many musicians have done: put aside the guitar, find a regular job and raise a family. But that’s not the life that he chose.
Patton and Brokus realized that as much as they would enjoy the limousines and tractor trailers full of sound equipment that come with stardom, that wasn’t their motivation. They came to the music for the thrill they got from hearing Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” Neil Young’s “Powderfinger” or Billy Kemp’s “Janesville.” They stayed with music for the chance to create such thrills themselves. And as they reached their mid-30s, they were finally figuring out how to reach that creative standard. Sure, they would have preferred the life they once pictured, but that wasn’t the choice that was offered to them. The choice was between a safe, comfortable middle-class life or a riskier music career. They chose the latter.
Patton had already formed Edge City before he met Brokus; the story of their meeting, her eventual inclusion in the band and their eventual romance is told in Patton’s sometimes humorous, sometimes earnest song, “(Ballad of the) Oxbow Inn.” Joined by an ever-shifting roster of bandmates, Patton and Brokus released the By the Water EP in 1986, the full-length album Great Expectations in 1991 and the album Million Miles Away in 1993. They played the club circuit in the Baltimore-Washington region, but as they grew restless they began to look for a new creative context.
They found it when they attended the South by Southwest Conference for the first time in 1994 and fell in love with Austin, Texas. They moved down that same summer and immediately plunged into the local singer-songwriter and roots-rock scene. Austin is the kind of a town where if you go to a party and introduce yourself as a singer-songwriter, you’re going to have to pull out a guitar sooner or later and show what you’ve got. Patton did, and the Texans were impressed by his craft and the passion behind it. Before long he was meeting musicians he had known only from the small print on his record collection.
When Edge City released a four-song EP, Ray of Light, in 1998, Patton and Brokus were backed by the likes of Gurf Morlix, Marvin Dykhuis, Paul Pearcy and Amy Farris Tiven. When the duo released the 12-song album, “Mystery Ride,” in 2000, the producer and dobroist was Lloyd Maines of Joe Ely and Dixie Chicks fame, and the musicians included David Grissom (Joe Ely, John Mellencamp), Glenn Fukunaga and Darcie Deaville. This was heady company. Patton and Brokus still weren’t making any money to speak of from their music, but they had the satisfaction of hearing their songs played by terrific musicians and the satisfaction of knowing the songs were good enough to deserve such support.
The more Patton & Brokus played live, however, the more they discovered that they were getting more bookings and better audience reaction in an acoustic format than in their previous electric set-up. So they emphasized the unplugged side of things more and more, and realized they had to make a record that reflected this sonic shift. It wasn’t the career they had pictured, but it was the career that they chose. A crucial step in this evolution was when Patton and Brokus attended their first Folk Alliance Conference, at Nashville in 2003.
“Folk Alliance helped us create this community not bound by geography,” Patton says. “I have people who are close friends of mine who I’ve seen only four or five times, but we’re bound by music and a shared lifestyle and a belief that you should find meaning in your work. Where I came from, people felt that if you liked it, it couldn’t be work. I like that in Austin and at Folk Alliance, no one asked me how long I was going to give this music thing.
“We weren’t able to tour till we adopted the acoustic format,” Patton adds. “I came off the stage at Eddie’s Attic in Atlanta once and people asking which of our albums sounded like what we just did. The truth was that none of them did. Now when we get that question, we have three albums to show them. I wanted to be acoustic but I didn’t want to be too singer-songwritery. So we just stand up and rock, even if we’re holding acoustic instruments. It’s a natural thing to do.”
The three albums he’s referring to are 2008’s Plans Gang Aft Agley, 2011’s Ray of Hope and 2013’s The Great Unknown, all produced by Ron Flynt. The first two albums hit the top 10 on the Roots Music Chart, and the new one seems destined to do the same. With each release, Patton’s songwriting takes a step forward.
It helps a great deal that Brokus is his musical partner as well as romantic partner. He has seen too many touring musicians feel like visitors in their own homes after too many long absences on the road. It also helps, he adds, that she continues to work as a professional therapist, a job that provides not only insights into the characters Patton is creating but also balance in the turbulent music world.
“The balancing of these two sides of my life is a real trick,” Brokus admits. “A lot of the songs Jim writes are about situations that everyone in the world goes through. That connects the two parts of my life naturally. A person who was working with us asked about our goals, and when I said one of my goals was to continue my private practice, they were surprised. They expected me to say I wanted to quit my day job and be on the road all the time. But the therapy is part of what makes me who I am. It’s not just that I’ve been doing it a long time; it makes me feel alive. Music makes me alive too but in a different way. The music allows me to turn inward and visit some dark garbage and get it out by singing with it. In therapy I’m helping other people do that.”