Small Town Heroes
Hurray for the Riff Raff
Alynda Lee Segarra is Hurray for the Riff Raff. A read-through of the liner notes for the album Small Town Heroes reveals Segarra’s Puerto Rican heritage, her folk tendencies, and her concern for the survivors of sexual violence (and those who haven’t survived). From the first cut, Segarra, however, keeps you guessing. The lyrics sound like they connect with the canon of traditional music, but you need to dig deeper.
The lyrics sound like they connect with the canon of traditional music, but you need to dig deeper.
My heart is a Blue Ridge Mountain,
and my head an overflowing fountain
My heart is a Blue Ridge Mountain,
but I never, never knew.
(“Blue Ridge Mountain”)
The second verse even references John Henry. The references trigger thoughts, but often I have no idea what Segarra is trying to do with them. The next cut is a diversion on the trip, suggesting there isn’t any use to being in a hurry, since there is a crash ahead, so you could just pull over and have some wine.
There’s a crash on the highway today
Nobody’s goin’ anywhere they say
It could be you up there, so you better say your prayers
And take it easy on your narrow way.
(“Crash on the Highway”)
This mixing of religious references continues throughout the album as well. That doesn’t mean these lyrics are clear about what she wants us to think about.
They say good souls they travel far
But did you take with you your old guitar
I was thinking about you that night.
(“End of the Line”)
The music styles are as varied as is the amount of instrumentation. Segarra has the vocals to pull off this range. One of my favorites to listen to over and over is the final cut, “Forever is Just a Day,” where two voices—hers and the strings of a violin—supply a full dose of melancholy. Of course you must have a love song, done with the blues.
A woman’s heart it’s made of solid rock
And if you love her
She’ll give you all she’s got.
Oh buddy, that can be an awful lot.
(“The New SF Bay Blues”)
But if you want to really hear the pain, check out the title track which ends in despair:
I tempted fate, and I acted smart
I grew some callus on my heart
I wanted love, wanted love
But I just couldn’t give enough.
What makes this album compelling is the sense that Segarra is concerned and connected with the marginalized and the outcasts, who live on the edges of many towns. On this album she claims them as her heroes, and they promptly populate her songs with their experiences of broken love, violence, and despair. But these folks on the edge also are part of the healing music that she writes. New Orleans was a special place in her own discovery of her musical gifts. After Katrina, Segarra chose to settle down in New Orleans and be a part of the regrowth of the music scene and of life in general. There are numerous references to spots in New Orleans. “St Roch Blues,” lets us into the frustrations that come with aligning with those on the edge:
Bullets are flying from a young man’s hands
People are dying, no one understands
And I keep on crying
Segarra connects with the listener not because we are blown away by the lyrics or convinced by political statements or the lyrical allusions, but because these songs are love songs for those often left on the sidelines and deemed unworthy. This album is an enjoyable listen, but I doubt it will have the holding power of a Gillian Welch release, which connects even after five years.
The original art on the CD cover shows Segarra with a resonator guitar, but that is not what you really get on this album. For a strong doseage of the resonator guitar, check out another recent release with only the sound of Dobro guitars. Three Bells, rings with the work of Mike Auldridge, who convinced many players to take up these resonator instruments with his smooth playing, and two other award winning long time players, Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes. It is an amazing musical treat, with only their three instruments, nothing else added, not even vocals. Auldridge died shortly after these recordings were made, which makes Three Bells a tribute to his amazing music.