Southern Discomfort

Diana Watters

Another Saturday night in Fort Payne, Ala. Somewhere in the town, teenagers are doing whatever it is they do on a Saturday night at the very end of the 1970s: playing Pong; trolling the streets in American cars with big tires; drinking in parking lots. The drunker ones might be lolling in a park, screwing in the heat.

Marlee MacLeod, 13 years old and by her own description "fucked up," is sitting in her parent's rec room watching Saturday Night Live, looking for a glimpse of the world outside Fort Payne (pop. 12,000)--beyond the video androids and the big tires and the parking lots. That's when it happens. The B-52's come on the TV, and everything changes.

Imagine, if you will, what goes through the mind of Li'l Marl--a tall, red-headed tomboy--as she comes into contact with this Southern-fried gay soul answer to NY disco (if ever such a thing could be). Two bouffanted Betty Boops on acid and a queered-out diva named Fred on the mic. "Rock Lobster"--three minutes of mutant surf-psych-space-dance-pop--sounds like the beginning and the end of everything to a girl whose only other guides to mass culture are TV Guide and One Day at a Time. Little does she know that this band from Athens, Ga., are practically her cultural kissin' cousins. Or that, in just over a decade, she'll be living in their hometown, playing the same clubs they first did.

Today, MacLeod can analyze her original sense of wonderment, approach it academically, as is now her wont. "I'm really interested in the influence of the mass media on teenagers, and especially teenagers in the South," she says. "I mean, I remember reading in TV Guide that cocaine wasn't addictive--cocaine in TV Guide. The '70s mindset filtered down to kids like me,

who immediately turned around and grew up in a completely different atmosphere. I tended to take TV at its word, whatever I took that word to be. I thought what I saw on TV was the world. And to a certain extent that was true. It was stuff we hadn't figured out yet."

What the B-52's had figured out was how to finesse the oxymoron that is the term popular artist: how to be in the world, but not of it. MacLeod seems to have taken the lesson to heart. "In high school I wanted to fit in," she explains. "But I wanted to be as different as I could."

Marlee MacLeod grew up half right. A pissed-off church-going drinker in a dry county. A sorority girl who did just enough acid and college radio to experience the University of Alabama at Tuskaloosa as if it were some sort of Left Bank below the Mason-Dixon line. A recovering graduate student in American Studies with a strong voice and sharp pen. A songwriter whose recordings sport major-league potential, yet who, through the whims of alt-pop fate, may remain a journeyman outfielder in Triple A.

The venues of the minor leagues of music are a varied lot. For every packed bar with good sound and intimate lighting, there is a place like Java Z. in St. Cloud, where MacLeod is plying her craft on a balmy Friday night in early September. Java Z. used to be a garage. In fact, it still is a garage--only the cars have been replaced by couches and coffee, and the drone of power tools has given way to the roar of an espresso maker. The floor is concrete, there's no PA system, and the distance between stage and audience is large enough that they should offer opera glasses. The room is anti-intimate.

But MacLeod, whose plangent, at times harsh singing voice and bare-naked confessional writing make her exceptional coffee-shop fare, goes at the audience like she's trying to convince them that there are worse places to be on Friday than here. Maybe she's trying to convince herself. And so MacLeod leaps into her acoustic set. Intoning carefully--and at times in gigantic swoops--she projects huge, hoping her raw material can make up for the lack of second guitar and drums--which she's left at home for a date like this. Sitting there in her Mid-American singer-songwriter uniform--the denim shirt, the blue jeans, the sensible brown shoes--she makes her play for her audience's ears. She is, as they say, working the room.

And after the last chord has sounded, she sticks to the job, settling onto a chair offstage to conduct the evening's real business--selling enough copies of her latest CD, Vertigo, to make the drive worth her while. She puts on the pop-poet's poker face to meet her potential fans. There's some bald guy--a songwriter himself--who wants to exchange CDs; an old fellow in the back of the room who bawled uncontrollably for no apparent reason at two different points during her two sets and is seemingly either a drip, a sad sack, or a lithium case; and more than one new fan who resembles the new femme-folk connoisseur--a member of the McLachlan Group.  

"You remind me of an alto Indigo Girl," chirps one such convert. MacLeod nods graciously. She rebuffs the bloke who wants to swap product, but gives him some sound advice. She even mollifies Mr. Lachrymose. As a night's work goes, it beats sucking an exhaust pipe. Then again, it ain't free dope in the greenroom by a fair stretch.

"This is a really hard job," says the 32-year-old who has been doing little else for more than five years. "I've learned to do stuff in the music business the hard way. How to behave, trying to be good to people. I have to be." If this sounds like the rhetoric of a career interviewee--think of a PBA pro who babbles to ESPN about "playing within my game"--it is. MacLeod is a touring, interviewing, glad-handing pro. "I can't really afford to be a jerk," she says jokingly. "I'm not that big."

MacLeod played 144 shows in 1995, and nearly that many in 1997 ("and that's a lot"), and while every crowd didn't exactly crackle with electricity, she did make converts. Coffee-shop lifers that on any other night couldn't be bothered to look up from their games of Parcheesi. Bar crowds that wouldn't know her from Deborah Norville.

"Marlee is the kind of person a major label would go after," says Replacements discoverer and Twin/Tone Records co-founder Peter Jesperson, who signed her to his Medium Cool label in 1993 and released her first two records--the embryonic, country-folksy Drive Too Fast and the harder-rocking Favorite Ball and Chain. "She'd tour 364 days a year if you asked her. And that's how you get on the radio."

Yet it's not what will get MacLeod on the radio that makes her interesting, so much as what will keep her off. When the femme-folkies--call them Liliths--listen to Vertigo for the first time, they may be in for a surprise. MacLeod grew up in Loretta Lynn's '70s, but she came of age doing college radio in R.E.M.'s '80s. She writes songs that treat punk's immediacy, indie's guitar sweetness, and country's attention to detail and dialogue as if they were all of a shared lineage.

Her characters cling to edges and leap from precipices. They get in fights that are resolved with lines like "I'm not sorry/I'm just tired." The average MacLeod character will stop in the middle of a heinous night of TV worship to notice "the iridescent birdie on my Visa card." That kind of observation has less to do with patchouli and (faux) sisterhood than with Wallace Stevens, whose female protagonist made a startlingly similar observation in the first stanza of his "Sunday Morning." More literary than the Liliths, MacLeod rocks like--well, like an M.A. in American Studies with and a fall-back career in education. Or a former rock writer who gets off on discovering who/whom inconsistencies in Newsweek articles.

MacLeod most obviously fits in with a tradition of great rock 'n' roll overwriters, from Elvis Costello to Rufus Wainwright. Think of her as a country-influenced indie-rocker with an impeccable eye for detail--a cross between Rosanne Cash and a killer copy editor. MacLeod often sings from her own point of view--particular as that is. But she'll also slip into character, imagining herself staving off perverts on the F Train at the behest of Shelley Winters, or extracting information from some weak-willed man on the Western Front.

"Vertigo," the title track from MacLeod's last album, begins with a gravelly guitar line that could sit next to Sheryl Crow on Cities 97. Thrust radioward by drums and tambourine, the song locks in and as it does one can imagine a room full of A&R men, loafers tapping, spirits soaring as they imagine the single sandwiched between "Adia" and "Torn" on the playlist of Zone 105. At last, they muse, here is something earthy, yet easy; pretty, yet tough. Something we can sell, and sell with pride.

Sure, it's a bit unkempt--a bit edgy--but send this through the looking glass of one of a dozen L.A. production wizards and you'll have a tune that could define an untapped market niche: a "Closing Time" for the women's rowing team. As the song hits stride, the men in the gray flannel flannels wait, expectations dangling as they finger their pagers.

And then the letdown: "Ver-ti-go/I have Vertigo/It's not so much the heights as it's the edges," sings the thorny Southern voice that label-boss Peter Jesperson describes as a cross between Tammy Wynette and Grace Slick. It's a bit defensive--too tough for Lilith.

By mid-song the toes are tapping less vigorously, if at all. Brows wrinkle as the A&R men try to parse lines about deceit ("rug pullin' under/Wool pullin' over"), fear ("does the vertigo show"), and commerce ("it's not so much the rules as it's the catches"). In all the time it takes to pick up the check for a two-martini lunch, and before the song has even hit the bridge, the intern who suggested "Vertigo" is cast back to the DreamWorks phone bank, and Marlee MacLeod is sent back down to the Toledo Mudhens.  

It makes sense that "Vertigo," arguably Marlee MacLeod's catchiest song, should be her trickiest. Seemingly a love song rendered through a handful of suicide metaphors, like Richard and Linda Thompson's "Did She Jump or Was She Pushed," it's actually an essay on industry. The track depicts Marlee the confused, struggling songwriter, "out there with the pigeons on the ledges," waiting for a call or afraid it might come, wondering what's worse, "the rules" or "the catches." What "Vertigo" ultimately captures is the conceit of the semi-public persona: How do I maintain jurisdiction over my "delicate condition" when I must excavate its intricacies to keep food in my mouth?

Rock 'n' roll, at its best, can become a way to confront one's emotional and intellectual limitations and turn debits into assets, fear into hope. For feverishly insecure people, this possibility remains more exciting than any newfangled sonic hokum. And it's what makes a record like Vertigo and a songwriter like Marlee MacLeod worth knowing.

Though she's out in front of the public over 100 days a year, getting to know MacLeod can be a difficult proposition. Beneath the acquired professionalism remains a kind of Southern discomfort--the background unease of someone who became a stranger to her upbringing.

"I was a reclusive tomboy with a weird sense of humor," MacLeod says of growing up in a small town at the Southern end of the Appalachians. The economy there revolved around a sock manufacturer called G&G Hosiery. MacLeod's father worked as an executive in steel. Her mother took care of Marlee and her step-siblings.

For the teen MacLeod, primary forms of entertainment were church, beer, summer camp, TV, and the novels of Shirley Jackson (roughly in that order). She read Jackson (whose "The Lottery" she would later teach during grad school at the University of Alabama) because she was a precocious kid looking for stimuli. She went to church, not at the direction of her parents, but because she liked singing in the choir. "Every Friday and Saturday, I'd be raising hell," she says, "then singing about Jesus on Sunday--which wasn't exactly the kind of consistent Christian witness the church had in mind." Summer camp was important because it let her meet, "all kinds of girls, girls form all over the South, who were different from the same old kids in my hometown."

When she arrived at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa in the fall of 1984, she met more girls from all over the South--girls whose primary goal seemed to be conforming to the mold. MacLeod rushed a sorority, or more accurately, a bunch of them. "All the good ones dropped me," she recalls. "I was from a small town in north Alabama, and I was 'high school,' and they're real picky. You've never seen such a character assassination. I mean I guess it wasn't a character assassination, because nobody really knew anybody.

"When sororities do rush, every night you sit in a room and decide who's not coming back. They'd say, We don't want her back because she has high-school hair. Or, We heard she dated a black guy. It was the meanest things I've ever participated in, and at the time I didn't know--there were a lot of things I didn't know at the time. It's such an insular world that I didn't think about it until later. I just took it as an assumption."

So went life at Alpha Delta Pi, at the bottom of the Greek pantheon, where MacLeod lived for her first two-and-a-half years of school. She was, by her account, the house weirdo: While her sisters devoted their weekends to pilsner partying, MacLeod dropped acid, "which, in a sorority house, can be quite an interesting experience," she says.

Unchallenged by her English classes, MacLeod landed alongside a lot of other student misfits--at the university's radio station. "Between my sophomore and junior year, I started doing college radio," she says. "And that was the change--like the line of demarcation."

It's hard for people in our age of ubiquitous alt-culture--all the insurgent soft drinks and outrageous nipple rings--to imagine the jolt that hit the South's best and brightest when its on-campus soundtrack switched from the sog-rock of the '70s to the post-punk of R.E.M. and their peers. "The New South," as it came to be called, was the first distinctly Southern rock arrival since Lynyrd "Watergate Didn't Bother Us" Skynyrd.  

MacLeod's watershed band, the B-52's, were as odd as any New York punk rockers. REM (at least in its pre-Murmur bar-band incarnation) was a jangly, Georgian Ramones. The seminal arty party band, Pylon (who sold MacLeod an amp a few years back), took its name from an obscure Faulkner novel. "I could feel it," MacLeod remembers of this musical renaissance. "In addition to all the good Southern bands, I was getting hit with all the other bands from all over. It felt very mind-expanding."

So when MacLeod found herself amid rock and radio people in the late '80s, and her boyfriend suggested she pick up the guitar, she was embracing not just a social option different from Alpha Pi, but a new way of being Southern. "I liked being in my sorority and being cool," she remembers. "Having all these rock band friends, and going to the bars where other girls wouldn't go."

After receiving her B.A., she bided her time in grad school, hanging around the radio station. "My only 'real' job--except teaching in grad school--was a month working in a sock factory," she says. In 1992 she made the move to the perennial hub of the Southern music scene, Athens, and started playing for a living.

"Athens tended to sprout bands, and I felt really welcome in town," she says of the town of 90,000 that once sported 250 bands. "I gave my tape to some papers, and brought my tape to this club and they said, 'Sure, bring your PA.' Sometimes I made like two dollars a night."

On July 4, 1992, Peter Jesperson saw MacLeod play a bar in Athens and signed her to his Medium Cool label. Later that year, she released her first record, Drive Too Fast, a patchy album with one great song, "I'm Gonna Leave You." Deceptively simple, it puts a new spin on a country cliché: She's gonna leave him "as soon as the summer burns/As soon as I get my tax return." Call it "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" as rendered by a college loan refugee.

To back the record, MacLeod put together a band and toured extensively, an experience that left her skeptical about her seeming career choice. "I had a real hard time when my first record came out, and I was almost ready to quit music," she says. "I was not mentally healthy enough to be out there with a band. I wasn't confident enough...I couldn't pay these people, and it was very stressful.

"I put on a dress and handed out résumés. I went as far as to secure a job in a bookstore. But the day I was supposed to start they called me and said, 'We sold the bookstore.' I knew this was a sign, and called my agent and asked if there were more places to play."

Among the places to play was Minneapolis, where MacLeod opened for the now-defunct roots band the Dashboard Saviors. "That trip up here six years ago was hugely important," she says. "It was the first time I'd visited this part of the country. I'd never played really far from home. It meant that I was a national artist. I brought up these cassette tapes I had done, and I sold every last one of them. People seemed really open to music up here. It was really great. I still see people from those shows."

She followed her one-off success by moving to Minneapolis and soon released her second record. Favorite Ball and Chain (1995) was an improvement from her first outing, due in part to the assistance of '60s-stung indie producer John "Strawberry" Fields. His additional guitar work helped sweeten MacLeod's trenchant hooks (on the buoyant "Everything You Know Is Wrong," and the taut "Las Vegas") while complementing her increasingly pointed sentiments (on the AIDS elegy "Walk," and the one-way phone conversation "Janesville Oasis").

Yet there is a sense in which MacLeod, though meticulous, is not fully in command of her talent. The singing on Drive Too Fast, as MacLeod now admits, is weak, and there are a few saccharine segments in Favorite Ball and Chain that would induce gagging in its creator today. "It isn't very easy for me to convey my own emotions without doing it the way billions of people have done it before," she says.

Vertigo succeeds because it does exactly that. Her best lines throughout are terse plays on what might otherwise be clichés: "It's lonely here as AM radio"; "We are young/But we've been younger"; "Are these the hands that time slipped through."

There were clunkers and weak patches, too, and MacLeod is not likely to turn into Lucinda Williams, Version 5.0. She might never write a song as plainly put and perfectly sung as "I Just Wanted to See You So Bad" and she'll probably never marshal the market recognition of a small-timer like Freedy Johnston.  

She is, however, far better than her sales--some 5000 copies for her first three records combined. Were she to have arrived 15 years ago, her modest stylistic hybrid might have been groundbreaking. We might even rate her as a sort of distaff companion to a retro-impressionist like Marshall Crenshaw. But today, when rock cognoscenti demand that up-and-coming artists box our ears with supersonic innovations, her work barely registers. In truth, MacLeod will probably never get the critic's props or label backing someone of her standing might have pulled down back in the days when people still threw around terms like country rock or the New Dylan.

Last year, while touring behind Vertigo Marlee MacLeod went through an unsettling experience that sounds like something from one of the outtakes of Vertigo. She was suffering through a night's lodgings at a motel in Valdasta, Ga., called the Jolly Inn when a combination of stress, overwork, and a general neglect for doctor's orders coagulated in the back of her throat and sprung forth in a fit of crying that just wouldn't stop. Soon her mother in Fort Payne, Ala., flew Marlee's roommate down South to take her back to Minneapolis, and within a short time MacLeod was back at it. Today, she observes it as a matter of fact: "I had a bit of a breakdown."

A year later, she's sitting on her couch, crocheting, basking in the glow of a likely new label deal. "It's a start-up Texas label that would pay for publicity and distribution. I'll be able to stay on my schedule of a record every two years and put this one out in the Fall of 1999," she says. "I won't have to put my own money forward or hire a promotion and publicity person. If it works out the way it's supposed to, it'll be what I want."

Somewhere on Vertigo Marlee MacLeod refers to her life as "an accidental sentimental journey," but in actuality she has rather ingeniously carved a niche for herself living a boho life on the fringe of the bourgeoisie. She makes a living, albeit a contingent one, writing songs and playing them, and shares a comfy Uptown apartment with a roommate. She keeps in touch with her favorite sorority sisters and gets compared in print to the great Southern post-punkers they never understood. And after four years in Minneapolis, her mom has finally been convinced that a boho bourgeois existence won't spell her daughter's moral decline. "She still wants me to go back to teaching," MacLeod says. "Which I might do. But all in all, she's proud of me."

Last year, amid a barnstorming touring spree, she played rhythm guitar at New York's Mercury Lounge for an equally worthy--and similarly unknown--friend named Cheri Knight, formerly of the Boston roots band the Blood Oranges. "It was great," MacLeod says. "That was everything I'd ever want a rock show to be. The people who were there were there to see the music we were playing, and the sound was phenomenal. And before anybody actually came in, we filmed stuff for a video, which was ultra-cool; I'd never done that before. It was a really good rock star night."

If that sort of mild careerism doesn't exactly seem "accidental," well then maybe accidental journeys are the province of those who can afford the plane fare home when the van, the band, or the bandleader breaks down. "My huge goal for the next record is to sell 5000 records. I think that'd be so cool," she says. "Here's what I know right now: I want to make another record. I want to tour extensively behind that record. And at some point I'm going to want to slide over into less touring and more songwriting. Because I'm tired."

My favorite Marlee MacLeod song is a slight little country tune called "No Vacancy." It's a driving song in search of a road sign, a waltz with a classic country cadence. "I drive for a living," she sings. "And I've been leaving shreds of my decency on down the line/I'm takin' in more than I'm givin'." We wait for her to pull over before she falls asleep at the wheel, but every stop on the road is booked for the night. And so she keeps driving, and we keep following her. Which is all she really wanted in the first place.

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