This is a story that made me think I really did have something to “tweet” about, though I subsequently realized that it was also a story that would not be adequately conveyed in 140 characters..
But it’ll fit here.
In May of 2010, I was asked by old family friend David Sanders if I might perform a Suzanne Vega song at an awards luncheon in Manhattan. The event was the National Music Council’s “American Eagle Awards” ceremony, and Suzanne was one of the honorees being celebrated as one who has made “comprehensive contributions to musical life in America.” Sure! It sounded like fun, and as I remember it the invitation included a specific request for me to perform accompanied by Mr. Crump on the acoustic bass. Ahh – a good excuse to do our swanky duo thing, which I missed since our album Open Wide and cross-country tour back in 2003.
The song choice was up to us, and I wasn’t inclined to do one of the big hits like “Luka” or “Tom’s Diner,” so I started to listen through the old and new catalog of good stuff. I had narrowed it down to a few choices, and we had two days before the event when I got a Sunday morning call from a very apologetic David.
“I’m sorry Jen, but there’s been a change of plans. Suzanne has decided to sing ‘Tom’s Diner’ acapella at the Awards. So we won’t need you to perform one of her songs.”
“Would you be willing to do a Kenny Rogers song instead?”
I’m not big on saying “no” to begin with, except to my kids, but I was definitely not going to turn this down. David seemed nervous about making the request, but I told him it was fine and I could make it work.
Kenny Rogers! It turns out he was being honored with an American Eagle Award as well. I have great respect for Suzanne Vega but I actually don’t know her music really at all. But Kenny! That’s my man. His greatest hits cassette never left my mom’s car stereo for about 6 months in the early 80s and I saw no need to complain. The ballads! (Props to the superb writing of Lionel Ritchie!) “The Gambler!” The duets!
Time to make a decision, and it was crunch time now. I lingered over the ballads but decided there was only so much I could do with “Lady,” nor was Mr. Crump a candidate to harmonize with me on “Islands in the Stream.” Finally it was obvious: “Lucille.” Can you hear it? We set to work rehearsing it.
The fact is, in our travels Mr. Crump and I pretty much get automatic credit just for stripping any song down to only four strings and two vocal cords — but there are more basic explanations for our duo aside from any wild musical daring on my part, like: 1) My guitar playing skills are minimal. 2) My harmonic ear is unsophisticated. 3) My husband is an awesome bassist. 4) I like the bottom.
Either way, it still seemed like we had to mix it up a bit more this time. First I had to find a good key to sing the song in, then we started experimenting – change the rhythmic feel from a slow/mid-tempo country waltz to something in 4/4 time? More uptempo? Funky? Bluesy? Syncopated? It’s embarrassing to remember how forced my suggestions were, but at least we didn’t try any of the variations for long. We came back to just playing the song as it was written, and how it was meant to be.
I had spent hours as a pre-teen singing along from the passenger’s seat in that old trouble-prone diesel-engine Peugeot, but that didn’t mean I knew those words cold. This became only too clear at showtime the next day.
It was a warm and friendly gathering, and before the ceremony I’d gotten to re-introduce myself to Kenny, who had been friendly with my dad Harry back in the day. He was down-to-earth and kind, and while introducing the song from the stage I felt comfortable telling him and the crowd of my mom’s tape deck as well as reminding them of Kenny’s generosity in helping keep World Hunger Year (now WhyHunger) afloat after my dad died. Also among the honorees was another old friend and fellow WhyHunger Board member Ann Ruckert – it felt like a cozy family affair.
But oh for more time to rehearse the darn thing, and get all the nuances I wanted out of the phrasing, and yeah, know the lyrics cold. Things did go well enough until the 3rd verse, when Mr. Crump was left to play solo while I fumbled in my head for what came next in the story of a man left by his woman with “four hungry children and a crop in the field.” I was momentarily frozen, if poised enough as these things go. Ann’s friend Roberta Flack (!) was also in attendance, and shouted out encouragement — “You got it girl!” — which may or may not have been the thing to get me back on track and finish out the song. I really would have loved for the performance to have been perfect, but it was OK. And Mr. Crump of course was pretty perfect.
Late that night, I got this in my inbox —
FIRST OF ALL LET ME TELL YOU HOW MUCH I ENJOYED SEEING YOU THE OTHER DAY AT THE AWARD SHOW, AND HOW MUCH I APPRECIATE YOU SINGING “LUCILLE” FOR ME. I WAS VERY IMPRESSED WITH YOUR ARRANGEMENT.. I WOULD NEVER HAVE IMAGINED DOING IT LIKE THAT, BUT IT WAS VERY “COOL”.
MY HEART WENT OUT TO YOU ON THE THIRD VERSE BECAUSE I HAVE MADE THAT SAME MISTAKE SO MANY TIMES. THANK GOD YOU WEREN’T LOOKING TO ME TO SAVE YOU, BECAUSE WHEN I GET OUT OF “STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS” I’M NO GOOD TO ANYBODY.
I CAN TELL YOU THIS YOUR DAD WOULD BE SO PROUD OF YOU. YOU HAVE AN INCREDIBLE VOICE AND IT WAS A THRILL FOR ME TO REMEMBER YOUR FAMILY. I DO HOPE YOU WILL TELL YOUR MOM HELLO FOR ME.
I’LL SEE YOU AT THE NEXT AWARD SHOW….AND THANKS FOR DOING THAT.
Please join me in the making of my new album, Reckoning