Amy Rigby…and why you should know her
Widely acclaimed singer-songwriter brings her unique mixture of pop, punk, folk and country to Rockford
By Michael Whyte
“I’m driving past a field of red poppies, hiding my left arm from the sun…”
That could be the opening line from a novel, novella or short story, the sort of simple, immediate imagery that situates a reader fully in time and place with an author’s protagonist. It is, in fact, the first line from “Time for Me to Come Down”, the lead-off track on Diary of a Mod Housewife, Amy Rigby’s debut solo album, and it perfectly sets up the story that follows, a story that will continue throughout the album’s dozen tracks.
Released in 1996 to much critical acclaim (it was voted the #8 best album of the year in the Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop critics’ poll), Diary of a Mod Housewife’s status has not diminished with age. The album’s very grounded accounts of a freshly divorced working class mother becoming reacquainted with the world outside marriage are universal enough (and likely autobiographical), but what makes them stick is Rigby’s sharp eye for detail, the emotional complexity of her characters, and the music’s catchy and assured mixture of folk, rock, pop and country influences (Diary… was, in large part, produced by The Cars’ Elliot Easton, and engineered by Brian Wilson’s right-hand man Mark Linett). With her occasionally cracking, vulnerable-yet-determined voice taking the lead, Rigby chronicles the demise of a marriage and its aftermath with unusual depth and candor and a rocking, earthy good humor. The album is a classic, but revisiting the songs can by a bit scary for Rigby: “In some ways I cringe at the rawness of the lyrics and the basicness of the music – I think I’ve written better songs over the years – but the immediacy and sincerity still ring true and for each three minute song I get to feel what it was like to be at that pivotal moment of my life again, the one where I stood alone for the first time.”
Born in Pittsburgh, Rigby migrated to New York City in 1976, where she became a regular audience fixture at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, taking in the many punk, new wave, no-wave and pop bands that were flourishing in Manhattan at the time. She co-founded the country band The Last Roundup with her brother Michael McMahon, which released one record on the Rounder label, then performed and recorded with The Shams, a post-modern girl group with one album (produced by Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye) and one EP to their credit.
It was after her divorce from dB’s drummer Will Rigby that she struck out on the path of a solo career. With a young daughter to raise and a day job in the mix, Rigby chose to accelerate her artistic pursuits at an age when many people are shutting them down to attend to “real life”. As a result, Amy Rigby has more excellent songs to her credit over the course of 20 years and nearly a dozen albums than many far more famous songwriters. From the scruffy glory of “Dancing with Joey Ramone” (a staple on Little Steven’s Underground Garage) to the pop perfection of “All I Want” (covered by Ronnie Spector, with Keith Richards in tow) to the hilariously pointed “Are We Ever Gonna Have Sex Again?”, “Cynically Yours” and “20 Questions”, Rigby has produced as rich a catalog of great songwriting as anyone of her generation. With a stack of rave reviews (The New York Times places her “…up there with the likes of Paul Simon and Randy Newman.”), years of solid touring and recording and appearances on such radio and TV shows as Late Night With Conan O’Brien, World Cafe and Whad’Ya Know, Amy Rigby should be far more widely recognized and appreciated. Even hard-to-please veteran music critic Robert Christgau has called Amy Rigby “One of the great unknown American songwriters”. Difficult to pigeonhole, Rigby’s music shows the influence of late punk pioneer Poly Styrene every bit as much as the confessional singer-songwriters she has been compared to. Throw in a dose of Loretta Lynn and a drop of Dusty Springfield and you have confounded a music biz that runs on easy labeling. There is nothing typical about Amy Rigby, and that’s what makes her great.
After a move to Nashville, then France, Rigby has settled into life in rural New York state, where she lives with her husband, British pop legend Wreckless Eric (he of “Whole Wide World” fame and the same late ’70s Stiff Records roster that introduced Ian Dury, Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe). The pair has made a handful of records as a duo and have frequently toured together. Her daughter grown and living in the city, and with the music business more daunting than ever, Rigby shows no signs of giving up. “I remember thinking as I approached 30 ‘there’s no way I’ll be going out on tour when I’m…40 years old.’ As if it was a hardship. What did I think I’d be up to by then? Writing, playing and singing is what I do. I feel lucky to be able to get out there, and to know that a song I wrote or record I made is part of somebody’s life.”
She has launched a fall and winter solo tour of the US and UK, and to celebrate its 20th anniversary, she has released Diary of a Mod Housewife for the first time on vinyl. Amy Rigby will be making a stop in Rockford on Sunday for an appearance at Mary’s Place, 602 N. Madison. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. Along with songs from Diary of a Mod Housewife, Rigby will be performing selections from her five follow-up albums, as well as new songs from her upcoming solo release, set to arrive next year. This is a must-see show!
Amy Rigby at Mary’s Place
Sunday, show starts at 7:30 p.m. Special Guests JF Gaziano & Michael Whyte with violinist Jon Rozman. Visit amyrigby.com.