Even Cowgirls Get The Blues

Haley Bonar cries over the past and sings alt-country's future

Haley Bonar's music career may already be doomed. The young torch singer believes she has committed the first cardinal cliché of countless Behind the Music has-beens. "I dropped out of school," she sighs, "for rock 'n' roll."

Bonar (rhymes with honor) smiles shyly and shifts in her booth at a Dinkytown coffee shop. Two weeks have passed since she played at Duluth's NorShor Theater, and the cropped, strawberry hair that was smoothed and straightened for her show has relaxed into its natural curly state, while her denim skirt and fashionably exposed slip have been replaced by plain blue jeans. The red cowboy boots are also missing. But Bonar still looks every bit as easy in this frumpy college hangout as she did on that dark, blue-lit stage where she played her guitar. Which is to say, she doesn't look easy at all.

It's hard to explain: Bonar isn't socially awkward in person, nor is she particularly withdrawn onstage. But somehow, the girl who could be Pippi Longstocking's hip and worldly older sister always seems just a little out of place. Maybe "out of time" is more to the point--an alt-country siren drifting easily through autobiographical snapshots, fiction, and dream imagery from some space where the clocks don't run as planned.

Or perhaps it's the pleasantly off-kilter universe of her debut album, The Size of Planets--a curious lyrical blend of overzealous angels and bloody car crashes, amplified by quiet guitars and a ghostly Rhodes--that makes the singer seem just a little fantastic herself. Musically, the album is equal parts Shannonwright and Gillian Welch--each an otherworldly performer in her own right. Wright's ecstatic keyboard mutilations and dark poetry, as well as Welch's lonely and lovely dust-bowl drawl, inform Bonar's writing. Yet stylistically, she walks a straighter line than either performer, eschewing the melodrama of dense guitars and keys for simpler melodies that showcase her pure voice. She's got all the makings of a dynamic performer--which is why it's doubtful that one simple cliché will ever land her on VH1's Where Are They Now?

Bonar's decision to leave school last fall was no less than heartbreaking for the bright would-be sophomore. "I kept crying, saying, 'Oh, my god, I'm dropping out of college!'" she remembers. Still, she adds quickly, "It's not like I'm never going to go back. It just wasn't right for me this year." She pauses for a moment, then shrugs. "It's not going to be right next year, either."

She's right about the timing: There aren't enough hours to study Jane Austen when you're spending your days performing with Low. After Bonar's set at the Norshor's weekly experimental night this past year, she was approached by Alan Sparhawk, who asked her to tour with his band. "I'm like, 'Oh yeah, sure,'" Bonar remembers of her flustered response, adding "Well, duh."

Planets was subsequently released on Sparhawk's Chairkickers Union label, and Bonar's alternate use of acoustic guitar and Rhodes keyboards on the album sets up an interesting dichotomy in her work. Depending upon what she's playing, she's either a plucky coffee-shop chanteuse or a tragic cowgirl. While the gently-strummed guitar works for stories about life on the road, life in the bar, and death at the bottom of a cold lake, the Rhodes-led songs really add an extra depth and moodiness to her music. When she sits down at the keys, her delivery is forceful and commanding--and significantly more unusual than her work with her guitar. It's like hearing the difference between her old blue jeans and those alarming red cowboy boots.

On songs like "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy," Bonar's innocent longings ("Find me a cowboy who...gets weak when he cries for me/Gets weak when he cries for home out on the range") slide into stranger fantasies with help from the calliope soundscape the Rhodes evokes, coating the song in irony. In the shadows of the keys, Bonar's stories of heartbreak and drunken stupor are hard to take at face value. There's a mystery about them--a welcome trait at a time when too many solo folk acts fizzle out in a wash of self-indulgence.

Bonar won't likely follow in the typical singer-songwriter path. She's wise enough to realize that she needs to make music her own way, and that an education doesn't just happen in a university classroom. Hemingway can wait.

 
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