An Alabama boy named Eddy Lawrence packed up his guitar and made the big move in 1982. And despite the competition and the odds, he started playing the historic clubs and even got a rave review from music critic Robert Christgau of The Village Voice.
But in his spare time, Lawrence was also doing something none of the other artists were — writing and recording songs about the Walker County of his boyhood (his grandmother lived in Sumiton, and other family were scattered close by) that were eventually collected in a 1986 CD that he would name “Walker County.” The album was all produced in his East Village apartment on a portable four-track recorder. One song ends with the siren of a fire truck that happened to be passing at the time.
Almost three decades later, it’s still one of the most popular and highly regarded of his albums.
“A lot of my approach is rooted in the music and storytelling that I heard growing up,” Lawrence says now, from his home in Moira, New York — about six hours due north from the Big Apple, and just a brisk walk from the Canadian border. “Walker County’s been a melting pot, in a strange kind of way. My mother told stories of people from Poland and Czechoslovakia coming there to work in the mines. So it’s been a mixture of blues and country and Appalachian, stirred together with the lives of people from around the world.”
But Lawrence’s vision in “Walker County,” as with most of his music, is far from a museum version of history. It’s funny, ironic, and dark, all at once, as in a song called “County Line”:
“When that neon moonlight shines / We’ll head on down to the Line / We can dance till we’re dizzy / And drink till we’re cryin’ / Saturday night on the Line...”
And another verse critiques the vittles available at a certain honky-tonk:
“Now the food might be stale / And the beer mugs small / But up here in Empire / There ain’t none at all...We’ll have bourbon in a shot glass / Pigs in brine / Saturday night on the Line...” Lawrence hasn’t let any grass — or concrete — grow under his feet since completing “Walker County.” He’s recorded nine more solo CDs, with titles ranging from “Used Parts” to “Guitars, Guns & Groceries” and most recently “My Second Wife’s First Album.” Kim Lawrence plays upright bass on the album, and the two often perform live as a duo.
Treating tragedy with humor
One of the signatures of Lawrence’s music is its ability to make listeners laugh and cry in the same show, sometimes the same song, and treating tragic situations with humor, as in the song “I Could Fall In Love with a Woman Who Drinks.” Another hard-times number is called “I’m Not Looking for Work,” and features the verse, “I’ve looked in all the papers / I’ve stood in all the lines / I’ve beat on doors / I’ve pounded floors / And pavement of all kinds / Well, I’ve busted my last boot-strap / And I still ain’t rose an inch / I’m doing things that used to make me faint / But now I don’t even flinch / I ain’t lookin’ for work / I ain’t lookin’ for work / I’m just a-lookin’ for money...”
“I was sort of an introvert in school,” Lawrence says, “but occasionally people referred to me as the class clown. So I guess I must have displayed some humor, even back then.”
In the past few years, he’s needed all the humor he can get. He was attacked by a dog and suffered severe nerve and ligament damage to his left/fretting hand. He couldn’t hold a guitar for eight months, and still hasn’t fully recovered. He plays scales for two hours a day, and is learning different techniques to fill in for the loss of fretting dexterity.
He’s now to the point where the injury most limits his studio skills, he says, but he’s still able to do some concerts. (At one point in the past, he toured New England so frequently that he had fishing licenses for five states.) As his recovery continues, he’s been involved with another ongoing project.
His home is at the edge of a Mohawk reservation named Akwesasne, and though his own Native American roots are Cherokee he’s gotten involved with the music community there and has recorded several albums with Mohawk singers and pickers, in the Mohawk language, which appear frequently in local radio playlists.
One of their most popular efforts is an album of contemporary country songs with Mohawk lyrics. Hearing numbers such as “Folsom Prison” in Mohawk is a way to “revitalize” the language, Lawrence believes, as well as being a learning tool for non-speakers.
“People tend to look at the language as being a museum piece, but it’s not,” Lawrence says. “The ironworkers on the reservation, especially, have held on to it, even when they go off and work in big cities. The cultural aspects of a language are important historically, but it’s just as important to have the language move into the future.”
A fictional world
One reviewer has written, of Lawrence’s solo albums and songwriting material, “After a concert, I heard someone ask, ‘This guy lives such a crazy life. When does he have time to write songs?”
They had just listened to two hours of songs about the life of a singer who, it seemed, had been a hot-wire artist, a junkyard denizen, a catfish farmer, loved a few dozen women and fathered a bunch of kids, and danced naked in parking lots with everyone except Muddy Waters.
“The listener, like so many others, had been beguiled into the fictional world of Eddy Lawrence, a world so full of truth it’s hard to remember it’s all a story written in songs.”
His perennial “Walker County” album, though, contains much more reality than fiction. As in the title song’s description, “And now mercury-vapor lamps upon the highway / Dilute the silver candle flames of night / And the smallest morning hours rend and splinter / ‘Neath the blade of recapped tires and high-beam lights ...”
In the rare times he gets to visit home, Lawrence says, “It looks completely different than when I was growing up there. There are spots here and there where you can make out that it’s the same place, but it’s really changed a lot.”
Still, the chorus of “Walker County” provides an uplifting note: “You know, the sun never sets on Walker County / Not even in the dark side of the sky / And the moon always shines on that Walker County line / Every time it sparkles in your eyes ...”
During his 58 years, Lawrence has accumulated a catalog of songs whose size and scope would be impressive for most artists to have accomplished by the end of their lives. But despite his injury and extracurricular music activities, he’s constantly writing new material. Does the process ever get old?
“I’m pleased to have been able to have a decent output,” he says, “but at the same time I’m always thinking about what I’m doing now and what I’m planning to do in the future. That seems to keep me going.
“At some point I can look back and say, ‘Wow, I did all that stuff!’ But my favorite music I’ve ever done is what I’m working on right now.”
Dale Short’s e-mail address is email@example.com
Editor’s note: More information on Lawrence’s music is available at snowplowrecords.com