Making ROOTS AND BRANCHES: “Anybody’s Girl”

True crime, outlaws and antiheroes. You can’t get much more American than that.

Some of my songs arrive in the form of a first-person narrative by an unexpected character. An outlaw or antihero works for me. I like the grittiness of Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road.” I like a TV series like Ozark or Fargo. I like turning the tables on gender stereotypes. 

So in “Anybody’s Girl” you get a male narrator who was (or is) married to a true crime gal. I think the medium was meth and more, the setting rural, the success demonstrable, and the downfall complete. Where is our narrator writing from? Hiding? Prison? Worse? He’s got some issues and shades things his way. His confession sounds sincere, at least as far as he himself gets it, but there’s probably way more to the whole affair than that.

He’s mostly concerned with, well, the loss of everything, and perhaps in particular with a marriage that didn’t seem to take given the suspicion  that his wife didn’t really love him except when “she was high.” To him, it’s an affair gone bad. He figures everybody’s got a story more or less like his, or at least everybody in his universe.

In true crime, winners are few and far between. And because no grift lives forever the only  win is to get out ahead of disaster. Once the investigators arrive it’s already too late.

Our guy knows one thing for sure: “she wasn’t anybody’s girl.” And that’s why she matters. She was her own deal, did things her way, and she didn’t bother to try to hide her jones. That’s honest enough for a less-than-perfect world. We know some of what she wasn’t. We know what “didn’t” damage her. We don’t know what did. We don’t know what was behind who she was and we’re pretty sure our narrator didn’t either. And we have no idea of what became of her.

Was there a betrayal? What looks like “heartlessness?” It shouldn’t require a suspension of disbelief that a woman can be a crime boss and that her husband be a bit of a self-justifying unknown of indeterminate culpability. And as for him, we know is that he lived to tell the tale.

To tell a decent story in a song we need a few details, a little mystery, and a few hooks. I love the tension between what gets revealed and what doesn’t. “Mack the Knife” shows that. Or David Bowie’s 2014 song “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime).”

The Cutting Room Floor

Like Dylan, I tend to write lots of verses. Lenne, in advising me on the making of this record came up with the idea of cutting a verse each in “Driving from Calgary” and “Anybody’s Girl.” In both songs the deleted verse was explanatory. So, as I said in the case of “Calgary,” cut the verbiage, up the mystery.

I always try to make my songs as short as I can, which is kind of funny if you look at how long my songs are. A good narrative song in three minutes is a piece of genius. “Anybody’s Girl,” at 4:36, isn’t close, but at least it’s in the ballpark, or my ballpark.

As is also usual for me, the structure is nontraditional as compared to a pop song. It’s got two choruses. Not a pre-chorus followed by a chorus. Two separate choruses. The first, “She wasn’t damaged by the liquor…” contains the song title. The second, “Is anybody out there…” sums up the big ache of the song. The second occurrence of the first chorus is a bit serendipitous—it used to follow the deleted verse. Now it follows the instrumental verse. The band brings the energy way down for the break. It’s kind of conversational, a snaky whisper, played with bare fingers and thumb à la Knopfler on the throaty fourth position pickup setting on my Strat through a Fender Deluxe amp.

Like the medley that closes Roots and Branches, this song uses no outside instrumentalists, keeping the focus on the ensemble vocals with Lenne and Eliza Blue, and I really think they are awesome. Bits like their oohs on “she wasn’t living in a perfect world…” and their biting tone on “…And the times she really loved me were the times that she was high” send me.

The musical setting uses only guitars and a bit of supporting organ. The lead guitar’s harmonized licks recall a bit of the Dickie Betts side of the Allman Brothers and a bit of my own sense of Americana roots.

The verse relies on variations on a single chord, Em, descending from the root through a minor seventh, minor sixth, and back, resolving in a lower-string lick. This is joined at the hip to a bass progression that makes it feel like the chordal palette is bigger than it is. The backup voices join in on every 2ndand 4thline, sort of disembodied commentators. Somehow the effect is that the verses don’t even seem very minor, but they are, as fits the storyline.

Both choruses modulate to major chords, chorus 1 to the major third and chorus 2 to the major sixth, boosting the thrust of the choruses. Both circle back to the tonic Em chord in ways in ways that keep it dark. John O’Reilly Jr.’s drumming is rock-sold roots rock. It marks the transition into the rootsier 2ndhalf of the record. He signals the turn in the first three beats he hits. If I was gigging with a live band, this would very likely be the sound.

Our narrator seems to have had his hands off the wheel the whole time, “…funny how your life can run a real crooked line.” An Ozark moment. And unfortunate.

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