Scott Robinson's Mellow Drama: A Triumphant Debut

By Bill Ede

If there is such a thing as "Kentucky songwriting," then storytelling is likely one of its distinguishing characteristics. Tom T. Hall, Billy Edd Wheeler, Jay Bolotin and John Prine have all called Kentucky home during what can be thought of as formative years and all are best known for their adeptness at the telling of tales in song.

If Scott Robinson's Mellow Drama is any indication of what this Frankfort singer/songwriter can do more than once or twice, then he may one day find myself in such distinguished company as well. In fact, Mellow Drama is such a strong debut, it's almost scary. One is reminded of Prine's first LP, without the sociopolitical context so central to the songs on that groundbreaking album. Robinson's songs are less time-specific, yet speak volumes about the human condition in the same manner. In an earlier time, songs like these would be the kind that hundreds of lounge and pub singers might choose to work up - and later, be required to work up - not unlike the songs performed by the singer in Robinson's "Song of the Bird," included on this CD - as well they should be.

Robinson's voice can only be described as beautiful, but not in a way that distracts the listener from the quality of the songwriting, as often happens with such strong singers as Larry Gatlin when he performs some of his better material. The songs for the most part have a sing-ability that renders them readily adaptable for more average voices. Like Gordon Lightfoot, or, closer to home, Alan Rhody, Robinson may well be his own best interpreter, but his songs stand quite well on their own, with or without the aid of his voice.

"Thieves" is as good as anything I've heard in years in its portrayal of someone who has successfully escaped the judgment and recrimination of everyone but himself:

"High-class whores and high-priced whiskey / couldn't keep me from myself.

I burned up every dollar bill 'til there was nothin' left."

"Still Life" depicts the lost innocence of a one-time young fisherman who now only "fishes for dreams:"

"My heart vanished like some kind of ghost / Into a mist, without a trace.

And it's something I don't' understand, and it's something that I just can't face."

"Old Fashioned Girl" moves Prine's "The Great Compromise" into the '90s with his requisite '90s-style avenging murder that is as much catharsis as anything else. We don't know the full meaning of the line "She bled old-fashioned blood" until a few lines later, lending the song more suspense than your average matter-of-fact murder ballad. (On the other hand, it's hard to imagine any song being more suspenseful than the traditional "Pretty Polly" or it's Dylan derivative, "Ballad of Hollis Brown.") The double standard in "Old Fashioned Girl is, of course, appalling, not only for the double standard between men and women but also between "old fashioned" and "modern" expected behavior patterns. Is there any real reason we should be less judgmental and more understanding of someone who violates a vow or trust simply because they have a known history of doing so in the past? To be sure, Robinson's song does give "closure" to the story in that the crime's perpetrator will indeed be "swinging at sunrise for the love of an old-fashioned girl." Wasn't it a kind of "closure" that they singer was seeking when he murdered her in the first place?

"Little Thief" describes the series of occurrences following the chance meeting of a couple in a dance club:

"Alcohol and love, they do not mix / with 6 a.m. and forty ton of brick," the singer muses to himself as he prepares for sleep. The next afternoon, he calls his new acquaintance to invite her out for the second night: "But I heard your smile through the pay phone line / and I wondered if you cold hear mine."

"Catherine the Great" is an update of Shel Silverstein's "Queen of the Silver Dollar," where, in Robinson's tune, the "men sit just like mannequins, in the darkness, in the black." Nowadays, of course, the "heroine" is just as likely to be working her way through med school as anything else, and any hope that existed in the Silverstein song of being "the one to take the Queen of the Silver Dollar home" is understood here at the outset as not likely to "lead anywhere."

"Lover's Choice" cautions against missed opportunities and being "too careful" in romance and counsels listeners to "hear your lover's voice before the music ends" in the hope that in retrospect, we will have "danced a little every day." The song has a Don McLean feel and is aided by Robinson's uncredited picking, Virginia Tate on viola and Dan Gediman on mandolin.

"New Bottom Line" features the fine background vocals of Kathleen Hoye and harmonica playing by Gediman and is a kind of modern-day "Eve of Destruction." In the context of a situation that only appears to be getting worse, Robinson wonders earnestly, "How can we march when we can't even stand," spelling out the song's ostensible bout with futility, which is countered and ultimately outdone by the defiant stance taken by the voices in the song's chorus and the lyric of the last line of the last verse.

The CD's "hidden track" - despite the inclusion of its lyrics in the CD's insert - "December 26th," depicts a postal worker as having the postmaster "on his hands and knees" in its portrayal of how everything is back to normal - "Nothing's really different / nothing's really changed." - on the day following a 24-hour holiday hiatus ("another Christmas come and gone.") Unfortunately, it appears that this will be a metaphor that we as a society are going to have to live with for some time.

Other players here include Steve Cooley on steel guitar, Michael Campbell on mandolin and electric guitar, Ben Griffith on accordion and upright bass and Pete Peterson on piano.

In a less "show me what you got, kid" atmosphere Robinson and his songs would have no trouble whatsoever finding their niche and leaving their mark, but in a saturated market such as today's, some strings may have to be pulled to ensure a hearing. Some of these songs may require more than one or two listenings to do their magic, although others of them do a pretty good job of "hitting home" first time out. It would be tragic to see such a good collection of songs get lost in the shuffle and we believers are just going to have to insist that that doesn't happen. Sometimes destiny need s little help and time can always be counted on to make particularly successful long shots seem to have been inevitable in retrospect, however far from the case that may actually have been.

Anyway, I've ranted long enough about this recording. Now it's time for us to show some uncharacteristic local support for a talent such as Scott Robinson, Frankfortian though he may be. We may not have much longer to the first city to claim to have "found" him.