If not for the sense of haunted desolation in many of his songs, James Low might be pegged as the eternal optimist. For no matter how lowdown, heartbroke, and alone his protagonists find themselves, they often seem acutely aware that something better must lie ahead: a sunny day; a fruitful harvest; some money in the pocket; a true, untainted love; or perhaps just the notion of someday finding peace of mind _ a place free from chronic psychic pain. Sure, he's going to drag the listener through the depths of his characters despair and by extension, their souls. But the reward is in trying to figure out not just how they got caught there, but what keeps them going, moving if ever so deliberately -,ever toward the light.
Low has never sounded more revealing and in character than on his latest recording, Live at Mississippi Studios. On this stripped-down set of classic tales from life's fringes, Low further obliterates whatever line may have separated the alcohol-drenched heartache of Hank Williams postwar American South from the more ambiguous existential angst of contemporary song-poets from Townes Van Zandt to Kurt Cobain.
Accompanied by Paul Brainard's sighing, stinging Dobro licks and his own country-blues flat picking, Low wrings out the hard-won truths of these richly evocative songs in a clear and plaintive-but-stoic voice. Whether numbly waiting for "the sunny skies of California"(Thinking California) a shot of redemption in Endless River ( "In time, I'll be sober / in time, my heart will mend"), or quietly reveling in the sly, sad-sack humor of "Medicine Show" and John Prine's "Pretty Good," Low somehow manages to simultaneously keep one foot in the grave and one hand always reaching for the stars.