freakwater2It was the mid-’90s, and we were all just discovering what was starting to be called “alt-country,” which mostly meant a whole lot of punk rockers who’d discovered that it could be just as effective to turn off your amps and focus on acoustic instruments and vocal harmonies, just like the DIY musicians of the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s had done. Pete insisted that I had to listen to one particular band, a pair of women from Louisville who sang old-timey songs about dead babies and betrayal, accompanied by guitar, banjo, upright bass and some stunning harmonies. He was particularly enamored of a song called “Crazy Man,” with its tale of family dysfunction (“I have met your momma and she’s crazy too/You got more from her than just your eyes of blue”), which was fun to play and sing ourselves. (It wasn’t long after this that Pete and his friend Marianne and I formed our own alt-countryish band. Our version of “Crazy Man” was enthusiastic, let’s just leave it at that.)

Once I’d started picking up Freakwater albums, though (my first acquisition was at a live show at the Mercury Lounge, purchased from a band member at the lip of the stage), I was more drawn to “Gone to Stay,” a country song about a familiar topic — untimely death — but with an unexpected lyrical twist:

And there’s nothing so pure
As the kindness of an atheist
A simple act of unselfishness
That never has to be repaid

That stopped me in my tracks. It still does, really.

I had stumbled upon the true magic of Freakwater, which was that as gorgeous and unexpected their vocal interplay, as talented their musicianship, as uproarious their stage banter, they are absolute lyrical geniuses. In particular, not to disparage Janet Bean in the slightest (her “Cloak of Frogs” is a thesis-worthy trove of layered metaphor), but Catherine Irwin soon became one of my absolute favorite writers of any kind, someone who has inspired me in my own work to choose words with incredible care, because they have incredible power. (The Handsome Family’s Rennie Sparks is the other lyricist I’d put in this category.) Check out this lyric from “Good for Nothing,” off of 1999’s End Time:

Forgive and forget are words that never slid across my tongue
Revenge like a fleeting Christmas morning I knew when I was young
Put the toys back in their boxes
Let me tear the ribbons off them just once more
Inside my little box of bones a ray of light shines
Where I’m slowly keeping score

There’s an awful lot going on there, an entire short story’s worth of character development and emotional backstory. Or you could drop the needle just about anywhere on their sublime 1998 album Springtime and hear … you know, I tried finding various snippets of lyrics to quote, I tried listing some of the subjects explored in the songs (Muhammad Ali and his experience with racism, the long legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the ways in which working-class solidarity has foundered on the evil genius of modern capitalism), but some things just work better in context. You can listen to the songs yourself by clicking those links, or you can take my word for it that all of these expansive ideas, and more, are handled deftly and brought down to personal size, even while being plumbed for unexpected depths. As Irwin explained later about the care that she takes in writing her songs, “As a fiendish NPR listener, I’m aware that it’s easy to be heavy-handed, particularly about something that you’re really passionate about.”

(She explained that to me, in fact: That line is from an interview I got to do with Irwin on her 2002 solo tour, an interview that ranged from the Amish and the Wobblies to authenticity and elves, and which still makes me think, and crack up laughing, all these years later.)

Freakwater has only released one album in the last decade and a half, and they tour infrequently — rumors of a 2013 tour with members of the Mekons, to be called the Freakons, sadly turned out to result in only a couple of shows, including one at San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival — but they recently headed into the studio to record some songs, which hopefully will mean an album and live shows sometime in 2015. As Irwin memorably said at another time, “If I had a master plan, it’d be trying to get people used to the idea of frumpy middle-aged losers singing music.” It may not be one big union, but as missions go, you could do much, much worse.